Walter Meierjohann is the Associate Director of the Young Vic in London but is in Nottingham with his new production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, the story of a small-time hood who rises to the big-time with more than a few nods to history and other works of literature. Gareth Morgan spoke to him after the opening night at Nottingham Playhouse to see if his show has what it takes to make the big-time too…
Can you give us a quick synopsis of the play?
The play is a parable of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1920s and 30s but transferred to Chicago. It’s the story of an Al Capone character, Arturo Ui, as he rises from a drifter to the top of the ranks and takes over the whole town.
So set 80 years ago and written during the Second World War – how have you made the play so contemporary and engaging? One review called it “stiletto-sharp”!
We had many ideas and discussions about how could this play speak to us and we saw that the economic crash in 1929 was one of the key reasons why Hitler came to power in Germany because the slump really hit the country hard after the sanctions of the Versailles treaty. Germany felt like a humiliated country and it allowed people, or this one person, to rise to a position of total power but, as Brecht calls it, it is a resistible rise. He’s basically saying “why did this happen?” and he looks at a cross-section of society who allowed it to happen. That's what this play’s about. As we have a real economic meltdown again today, you open the papers and think “Oh my God, this is all coming back to us”. Only this month the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has said that this is the biggest crisis since the Wall Street Crash, possibly even worse. It’s because of things like this that this play really speaks to us now, 70 years later, and that’s quite scary!
But what was the key to making that all work?
I think it’s trying to find the balance between comedy and menace. Brecht, like Charlie Chaplin, found that a satirical approach was a very good way of looking at the character of Ui. Ian Bartholomew does an amazing job in playing him in almost Vaudeville, comedic style then by the end hitting it hard and telling his audience that this guy is terrible, he’s a threat; he’s a terrifying killer. To find that balance is tough and I’m quite proud as I think we’ve achieved exactly that. People laugh at the beginning and think he’s silly, a clown, and then by the end they are terrified. This is how Brecht said people talked about Hitler in the 1920s before he came to power, “this is just a little punk, some guy from the countryside in Austria, you can’t take him seriously” but in 8 years he made it.
The show’s marketing, production shots and promo material are all great; they’ve got a really strong visual feel and this is mirrored in the show. How did you manage to make it look so good?
I’m working with Lighting Designer Mike Gunning who suggested Ti Green as a Designer for this. I’m someone who really loves the visuals in theatre; of course there’s the language but the visuals are what get me excited and this production is quite filmic but using theatrical means – Ti has done a great job with this. They [Green and Gunning], together with Louis Price who did the video and costumes, Nikola Kodjabashia who has done the music and myself have given it the whole package of creating a Film Noir on stage. It wasn't easy but I think it but it all comes together and, from the reactions, people really enjoy it.
This is a new version of Brecht’s play – how was it, as a German, to work on a German text but in a fresh translation and in English?
It was quite something. Steven [Sharkey – the version’s Translator], whom I had not met before, is from Liverpool and originally there had been an idea of this being an adaptation into Scouse. That was something they had looked at for about two years until I joined the project. I suggested we try it but we had a reading and it didn’t work out; I also think that once it came to Nottingham people would be saying: “a Scouse adaptation! What’s it doing here?”
Brecht had always envisaged the play being performed on Broadway. He thought he was just going to write it in Finland, hop on the ferry and open in New York but it was never achieved. So, we went back to that idea. Here in Britain you have great English actors who can play an American accent and that, for me, was a delight. For me though to do this piece, 70 years later, in this American language is fantastic.
Working with Steven was very good. He doesn’t speak German so I sometimes would act as a dramaturg and relate back to the German and say that he might need a little bit of tweaking here or there.
Some readers may not know much about Brecht, can you sum up his work and plays for us?
I think that there are two things about Brecht. One is he can really get on your nerves, sometimes like a bad schoolteacher who lectures you and puts people off. The other is that sometimes he can strike a masterful balance between entertaining and giving historical and political information and this piece is an excellent example. The plots are often complicated but his works are a real celebration of theatre: that is his style. We talked a lot and tried many things working on Ui but we found that Brecht is about celebrating the joy of being in a theatre space and an actor demonstrating a role and then, within seconds, slipping into a new role. That constant shift is, well, very Shakespearian actually but stemming from a huge celebration of theatre too.
And there’s a great depth of Shakespearian reference in the text too...
That’s right. Depth is a good word although I would call it theft. Brecht didn’t believe in copyright; he thought it was bourgeois. He actually believed in nicking other people’s ideas and playing with them. Ui is a masterpiece in how to steal from Shakespeare.
Who do you think that your Ui will appeal to as an audience?
I’m not considered a young, young director anymore but what I’ve discovered over the past few weeks in rehearsals, in Liverpool and in the opening show here in Nottingham is that this show is really for young people. I know that I sometimes go to theatre and sigh, “Oh my God, another Brecht, another Shakespeare” but here I see young people going in with their mobile phones and crisp packets and think: “They’re just going to text” but actually they really get into the show and I think the visuals speak a lot to young people’s cinematic understanding of performance. I think that this text, which is like a Film Noir, really appeals to a young audience – an older audience of course too – but I’m really pleased with getting a great response from younger audiences.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs at Nottingham Playhouse until 12 November 2011. Tickets start from £7.50 with a further special concession with valid student ID.