When Kip Williams was appointed Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company, one of the first plays he and Hugo Weaving discussed was Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Both were fascinated by it and though Weaving admits he had never envisaged himself in the title role, they agreed he would take it on with Williams directing.

“It’s funny because we had both been thinking about it,” says Weaving. “I guess it’s always been in my mind ever since I saw it when I was about 19 or 20 and thought ‘what an incredible play – an extraordinary piece of work that could be done in so many different ways’. I’ve seen a number of productions of it over the years. I was lucky enough to see the Berliner Ensemble production [directed by Heiner Müller, which has run in repertoire since 1995] with this wonderful actor, Martin Wuttke, playing Ui. When I came home Kip asked what I’d seen and I listed the plays and said that was the highlight, just the performance of it really.”

Hugo Weaving, Sydney Theatre Company, Arturo UiHugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Photo © Rene Vaile

And yet, though Weaving has long been interested in doing the play, he admits he’s also thought that there are problems with it. “It’s kind of unwieldy; I think [Brecht] wrote it very quickly. It presents lots of issues and problems to people doing it, not least of which, I always thought Ui should be a little man,” he says.

“There’s something about the way Brecht writes about him. It’s quite broad and quite cartoonish, and then becomes increasingly terrifying, I suppose. I’d always imagined that the actor playing Ui would be better if they’re small. So I had this thing in my brain that I probably shouldn’t play it because of that.”
Becht wrote Arturo Ui in 1941 as a satirical allegory for Hitler’s rise to power. Drawing on the gangster movies coming out of Hollywood at the time, which he loved, he set it in 1930s Chicago, making Ui a mobster who plots to control the lucrative cauliflower market and systematically disposes of his rivals. Brecht also included various Shakespearean references, to Richard III in particular, as well as a nod to Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator.

Actors who have played Ui over the years include Christopher Plummer on Broadway in 1963, John Bell for Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company in 1972, and Lenny Henry for London’s Donmar Warehouse just last year.

With a growth in right-wing nationalism around the world, a revival seems timely. However, the STC production won’t draw obvious parrallels with either Hitler or Trump for that matter, who was frequently evoked in the Donmar production.

Williams is using a new adaptation by Tom Wright, which probes the psychology of the individual. “It’s called The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, so I guess you’re looking at the man himself, but you’re also looking at the circumstances in which that person can come to power… Why do we allow these things to happen? What is the particular psychology of an individual who can manipulate particular circumstances to take power? What is it about them that needs that?” says Weaving. “The further you get away from the initial impulse of Brecht to write this piece, in a way the less interesting it is that it’s just about Hitler. What Tom has done [is write] a leaner, darker version, I think. It’s got a particular contemporary Australian vernacular take. Brecht was writing it in a Shakespearean pentameter way. That’s not so evident with Tom’s version – it’s a little bite-ier. It’s got its own rhythm.”

“We’re not making the obvious parallel with Hitler. I won’t be walking around with a little moustache. We’re not even in Chicago. I’ve seen productions of that, and so had Kip. It becomes playful, museum stuff, I think. Even if you do it really well, it can be a great night out. But there’s something about that which just rings a little bit hollow. So we’re trying to find all that black humour. It is dark, funny and nasty and it should be entertaining. We’ll be trying to find our own, very particular, world for it that springs from Tom’s version,” says Weaving, adding that Williams will also be using cameras.

It’s the first time Weaving has been on stage since 2105. After performing in Beckett’s Endgame for STC, he went to London with STC’s Waiting for Godot. Since then we have seen him in the films The Dressmaker, Hacksaw Ridge and Jasper Jones, and in the ABC TV drama series Seven Types of Ambiguity.

“I have had two years away from theatre. That was a very definite decision on my part. I love it, but I’d done a lot of big roles and a lot of theatre over about a five-year period. I was very glad to have been part of Endgame, Godot, and Uncle Vanja, which had three outings,” he says. “But I was interested in looking for some more film work and also just taking a break from the theatre thing of going in every night and doing the show. But I’m looking forward to getting back to it now.”

Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 21 – April 28