REVIEW: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until July 28.

Henry Goodman gives a breath-taking performance in Jonathan Church’s stunning revival of Brecht’s satirical masterpiece.

I first saw the play 30 years ago in Southampton – the most thrilling night I have ever spent in a theatre. Church’s production is at least its equal, thanks to Goodman’s sinister brilliance.

At the start he’s a small-time crook cowering behind a chair at the slightest disturbance; by the end, he’s the finished article, a Führer in waiting with full command of the devastating rhetoric which gave Hitler his terrifying magnetism.

With each successive scene, Goodman – worryingly reminiscent of Thatcher’s grooming session in the recent film The Iron Lady – gains the Hitler characteristics, transforming from shuffling, awkward, cowardly runt to upright, dominant and ghastly dictator.

Chillingly, Brecht wrote the play at a time when the full implications of the transformation had yet to be seen.

But Brecht’s real genius was that instead of setting his version of Hitler in the context of the Third Reich, he makes the Führer a Chicago gangster named Arturo Ui; political power becomes Ui’s seizing of the cauliflower trade; Hitler’s annexation of Austria is now Ui’s absorption of the neighbouring town of Cicero.

Brecht’s point is that this wasn’t an irresistible rise; the production’s success is that it realises Brecht’s aim, persuading you that it didn’t have to happen. Goodman and the cast show you that this particular hoodlum could and should have been stopped – a point underlined at the end when Goodman, with classic Brechtian lack of subtlety, steps out of the role to say so.

But the skill of this particular production is that rightly it leaves all the Brechtian paraphernalia (banners etc) behind to let the play speak for itself: the result is an absolute triumph, a reminder of the raw power of theatre at its very finest.

Goodman’s face, constantly moving, is a mesmerising masterclass in itself; and a superb ensemble does the rest. Joe McGann is deeply disturbing as the ruthless Giri (the Goering of the piece), a man who collects the hats of the people he murders. Never has the sentence “I like your hat” been so unnerving.

Michael Feast as Roma (the Röhm of real life) brings similar impact to the piece, not least when he returns to haunt Ui as the ghost of killings past. William Gaunt (as Dogsborough/Hindenburg) shows how easy it is for decency to be compromised when evil is on the march.

Put it all together, and you’ll struggle to think of a finer production in the Minerva’s rich and varied history.

Phil Hewitt