It doesn’t take Brecht to convince the The Donmar team to create an immersive theatrical experience, with a powerful social message. They had us rounded up like inmates at the Shakespeare trilogy and here we are once again in the round, welcomed into a 30’s Chicago speakeasy with vintage lights and tables for audience members brave or foolish enough to sit at the front.

As the lights dim, one of the gangsters grabs the mic and begins to sing a retro version of Rag’n’bone Man’s chart-topping, ‘I’m only human.’ It’s the first of many well-placed contemporary cultural references; often beautiful, frequently funny and sometimes terrifying.

Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece, written in 1941 when he fled Germany as Hitler rose to power, is set in the corrupt gangster world of 30’s Chicago but explicitly parodies the rise of fascism. Bruce Norris’s superb new translation adds another layer with frequent allusions to Trump’s leadership. When Arturo Ui stands in front of his ‘supporters and says, ‘This city is overrun with immigrants’ and ‘we need a wall!’ there is an audible intake of breath from the audience.

Lenny Henry, playing gangster boss, Arturo Ui is a big draw for a very good reason - but there is no weak link in this electric ensemble. Henry (who it seems can do almost anything) nails the charismatic psychopath. As a performer his strength of course is his ability to be funny and vulnerable which when combined with physical menace and power is deeply sinister. He also has the cool capacity to switch off the action when required.

References to Shakespeare abound in Brecht’s extraordinary 11 scene play (written in only three weeks) – but when Arturo cowers at the ghost of his murdered right-hand man, Ernesto Roma (played with canine ferocity and devotion by Giles Terera), it doesn’t matter if you’re well versed in Macbeth or not. Living a respectable life on the right side of the law, Michael Pennington is painfully convincing as Dogsborough, eventually stripped of his dignity through his involvement with Arturo’s protection rackets.

Above all what Simon Evans production succeeds in doing is reminding us of Brecht’s genius. The whole play turns on an eye-wateringly funny scene where bitter, unemployed thesbian, (Tom Edden) trains Arturo to walk and talk like a act-or. When funny walks and arm relaxation exercises start to look all too familiar, the bottom drops out of the laughter and it’s easy to see why in 1941 Brecht’s provocative, political work put him in a precarious position.

The rich, immersive experience at the Donmar, invites the audience to take a stand and whether or not that invitation is accepted, it’s a hugely entertaining night out.
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