In true Brechtian style the cast and crew of Curtin University’s Hayman Theatre Company deliver a play of epic (pun intended) proportions at Curtin’s Hayman Theatre. The play, overall, was, (another pun?) irresistible. A cast of 17 playing 24 characters worked together fairly seamlessly to tell the story of a bloody megalomaniac.
Kudos to Tim Lorian who showed he had the balls to play the villain, Ui. Tim could back himself even more and not fall prey to the clamour that swirls around him as he rises to the top. Ui knows what he’s doing – trust him, Tim, as he expects his henchmen to trust him.
Malek Domkoc was an imposing Ernesto Roma, a wonderful foil for Ui. Malek was never more Ernesto than when he was Ernesto’s ghost, back from the dead, like Banquo, with literally a grave warning for Ui. It was perhaps because Malek played the ghost of a character that he was fully able to let go and become that character. All actors, in fact, might do well to remember that characters are merely spirits to which they must give themselves up. Actors often interfere with a character when they try, literally, to be somebody else.
Dockdaisy, played by Jasmine Valentini, was present but her character could be distinguished even more. And more distinguished it will become, I’m sure, as Jasmine settles into the run.
Alex Comstock, as Emanuele Giri, was a force to be reckoned with – somebody not to get on the wrong side of. Alex could be even more menacing if he remains exactly that – more menacing – less overtly violent when he doesn’t need to be, and more potentially violent. Alex was a little shouty at times – as were some other actors – and he doesn’t need to be. He’s got the size, the snarl and the murderous look in his eye, and he needs to use his voice to intimidate – not to annoy.
Taylor Beilby hit on the right note and style for Giuseppe Givola, the mobster florist – and styled nicely he was by costume designer Kiri Siva, who, along with costume assistants Pauline Rosman and Jane Tero, did an outstanding job of individualising and contextualising all the characters without resorting to stereotypes.
Christian Dichiera, as James Greenwool, was every bit the gangster, serious about his job as a thug and relishing the spotlight in the courtroom.
Nelson Fannon was extraordinary as the washed up actor called in to give Ui some lessons on bearing and elocution. Nelson was slightly overbearing as the Master of Ceremonies, who opened the show, which may be the result of a combination of direction and nerves. The purpose of the prologue is invite the audience to listen and to see a story unfold – to settle the audience, make them comfortable, and to encourage them to enter the world of make-believe – not to force the story upon the audience. Then again, it would be consistent with the world of Arturo Ui to make the audience comply. At any rate, Nelson showed himself to be a versatile actor. He played to perfection a prosecutor in one of the courtroom scenes, which again makes me wonder whether actors hit the right note when they’re not trying too hard: the ghost of Ernest Roma, played by Malek Domkoc, the prosecutor, played by Nelson, and Ignatius Dullfoot, played by Sebastian Boyd, were the ‘other’, we might say ‘second’ characters each of these actors had to play (although one could argue that playing the ghost of Ernest Roma is nothing more than playing Ernest Roma himself) and the actors seemed to play these ‘auxiliary’ characters flawlessly. I suspect that being conscious of the ‘main’ role assigned to each of these actors led them to give special attention to what we might call their ‘primary’ role resulting in a combination of actor and character ‘rolled into one’. Granted, Sebastian Boyd, presumably no more than 23 years of age in real life, had to play an 80 year old man and that is tough – going the whole hog, with makeup, a wig, and a young person’s old person’s voice can be comic but not doing enough to show the character is elderly can be confusing for the audience. A silvery wig was chosen to give some indication of Old Dogsborough’s age. Indeed, the wig was enough to signify Dogsborough but Sebastian added well to this by sensitively embodying the upright yet feeble man.
Young Dogsborough, played by Calum Christie, was believable at every moment. Could it be, once again, that the actor, not burdened by the fact he had a ‘major’ role to play simply allowed himself to ‘be’ the character?
Kyra Belford-Thomas was also entirely believable as the demure and dutiful Mrs Dullfoot. She perhaps overdid grief at the funeral scene. Kyra would do well to remember that Ui had been quite charming with her before he murdered her husband so perhaps more disbelief and fear could add colour to her meeting with Ui at the funeral.
Clodagh Berryman, Kailea Porter and Emily Bell played the levelled-headed, conspicuous Businesswomen of the Cauliflower Trust. The choice to have women play these roles, traditionally intended for men, enhanced and contextualised the story for our times. These three actors, reminiscent of Macbeth’s witches (perhaps a deliberate choice given the play’s many allusions to Shakespeare) were strong, maintaining character on stage given little dialogue.
Emily Bell held stage very well as Defence Counsel in the court scene, rising to the occasion both as actor and character, flying in the face of danger, outnumbered by – literally and metaphorically – ‘the mob’ – all while knee-deep in the corruption of the court, presided over by Thomas Bach as Judge. Thomas played well the role of ‘judge as puppet’ – not too domineering but putting on enough of a show to convince all and sundry he was there to uphold the law.
Upholding the faith was Jack Blumer, who played the pastor, speechifying at Ignatius Dullfoot’s funeral. Jack was strong but he could take his time a little more in order to set the scene. With so many changes of scene and one relatively unchanging set, the actors do need to set the scene quickly but the audience needs time to adjust. Jack could do better by really imagining a church full of both sincere mourners and curious onlookers and, calmly and pastorally, draw our attention to the fact that we are indeed in a church, at a funeral.
Bryan Chin, as Fish, could also slow down a bit to draw us in to his world, his character. His character is there but he shouldn’t be dismissive of it.
Sacha Emeljanow was appropriately dismissive as journalist Ragg. She could go after her goals even more tenaciously – like journalists do – in order to bring out even more of Ragg’s cheek and humour.
But cheek and humour the play did not lack. Choreographer Jade Woodhouse, together with sound and lighting designers John Coughlin and David Cooper, respectively, as well as A/V designer John Congear, have combined brilliantly, under the direction of Leah Mercer, to give us a true Verfremdungseffekt experience – the ‘estrangement’ or ‘alienation’ effect popularised by Brecht – by regaling us with a number of jarring though thoroughly entertaining interludes that leaned heavily on 90s dance and music. Also jarring but totally right was the amazing set designed by Chloe Palliser and Cameron Norton – think seedy nightclubs in the 90s – black yet fluorescent dingy places. The set was something you really couldn’t take your eyes off and greatly contributed to the play’s dynamic. As if it couldn’t get any better, the set was gradually covered throughout the play by propaganda-style posters of Arturo Ui ultimately giving us the full dystopian – or was it fascist? – experience.
All in all, this production is worth seeing. This play could reach award-winning levels if the actors but settled more into their roles, which I think will happen. The actors, I think, need to try less. Brecht has already taken care of the story, along with its irony. The actors need to remember that they can inadvertently short-circuit a play if they take upon themselves – usually by means of their voices – the job of communicating the irony to the audience. An ‘ironic’ voice delivering an ironic line is akin to a double negative – the two phenomena tend to cancel each other out. The irony is already there in the script so there’s no need to treat your character ironically. Treat your character seriously – the irony will take care of itself.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at the Hayman Theatre until May 25.