In Germany they stare at me in bewilderment. 'Brecht?! You're translating Brecht?' 'Yes,' I reply, and the looks of bewilderment turns into looks of pity. The great man is out of fashion in his native land. He's not exactly in fashion in Britain either. Audiences are wary: they fear a punishing evening of didactic theatre. Producers are cautious: poor old Bertolt isn't seen as box office. As a result, productions of his plays are most often staged by subsidised theatres that are able to afford the large casts and cope with the risk of empty seats.
So when The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui transferred last month from Chichester to London's West End, there were some raised eyebrows. Happily, our producers now have smiles on their faces. They've proved that there is an audience for Brecht in the commercial theatre. But it's not easy.
The fear of being preached at is a not entirely groundless fear, because of course Brecht wanted to use theatre not to invite the audience to wallow in the emotion of the drama, but to sit back, think, and engage with the issues underlying the drama. This aspect of Brecht's plays has so entered the public imagination that people often forget that the old rogue sure knew how to entertain. A few years ago I translated The Caucasian Chalk Circle for Shared Experience. The love story at the heart of the play became as powerful as the issues of property and ownership which the play is supposedly about. Audiences may (or may not) have been educated, but they were certainly engaged, moved and entertained.
Brecht can be funny, too. (No, honest, really, scout's honour). Arturo Ui contains one of the funniest scenes ever written, as Ui, a thinly-disguised Adolf Hitler, takes lessons in public speaking from a drunken has-been actor. To make it work all that's needed is a cast and a director who know how to make the comedy work. And a creative atmosphere in rehearsal that treats Brecht with sceptical respect rather than awed reverence. Oh, and a good translation helps. In the production currently running at the Duchess Theatre, we're using George Tabori's terrific version of 1963, which I've cautiously revised and shortened. Add a towering performance from Henry Goodman in the title role, and suddenly you have a delicious oxymoron on your hands: A West End hit by Bertolt Brecht.
It's not all laughs of course. On the surface, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a merry metaphor for the rise of Hitler. But it's a warning about the future much more than it is a history lesson. It reminds us that evil can be stopped in its tracks. It portrays Hitler not as an evil genius but as a little schmuck, a nobody, a pathetic creature who could so easily have been seen off. Ring any bells? I hope so, because Arturo Ui is a play for our times.