It seemed as if Henry Goodman had broken the mould of playing villains such as the “scumbag lawyer” in the musical Chicago or the “vicious, nasty, ugly human being” (these descriptions are his) in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. It was a relief in more recent times to play the “big and warm hearted” Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, or the thoroughly decent Arthur Winslow who “puts everything on the line for his son” in The Winslow Boy.
But here he is, back playing a “guttersnipe” who is “nothing but a little schmuck” and who ends up causing the “death of millions”. And Goodman’s revulsion for the man whose skin it is his job to get under is palpable.
His name is Ui, a Chicago gangster. Although when the German, Marxist dramatist Bertold Brecht wrote the character, it was not Al Capone who he had in mind, but Hitler. Brecht wrote The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui as a warning on the rise of the far-right. It’s a kind of map by which the play’s audience might be able to recognise rising new Hitlers and thereby be able to stop their ascendance.
The plot is a parody of the events that saw Hitler metamorphose from Goodman’s “guttersnipe” to Führer. When the play depicts the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, it mirrors the Night of the Long Knives in which Hitler purged his route to power of any human obstacles. And when, in the play’s famous bravura scene, during which Ui is coached in how to develop a crowd-winning charisma, it mirrors the process by which Hitler himself developed the speech patterns and mannerisms that entranced a nation. The result is both ridiculing and chilling.
“There is no question that by the end of this production, I have become Hitler,” says Goodman darkly. It is the end of a long day of rehearsals. And even though Goodman is reprising in the West End the performance that was described as “mesmerising” when first seen in Chichester, becoming the greatest enemy of every Jew still takes its toll.
“To be honest I was scared doing it later in life. I’m 63 now. It’s the sort of role you should do when you’re 33. It’s big and demanding and although I get to use all the physical and emotional skills that I have trained in for years and years, it’s a mountain to master.” There have been mountains before. None of them would have been harder to climb than his landmark Shylock. It was yet another role in the list of hated humans. And yet for an actor as committed as Goodman, even portraying Shakespeare’s Jew has parallels with history’s worst antisemite.
“When I played Shylock I didn’t want to make him a sweet, loving man. I wanted to show him as a man pushed by society who is more than capable of viscous, ugly murder. That’s why it’s so moving. They [the Christian Venetians] have manipulated this man. So I’m not saying I have sympathy for Shylock when I play him, I’m saying I understand the forces.”
And it is the forces at work that Brecht’s play is so concerned to illuminate. There are obvious difficulties in this for a Jewish actor. He has to stand on stage and say: “Those Jews, they’re coming,” with a sneer that stretches the word “Jew” into an insult.
“It’s not nice do that,” he explains with breezy understatement. “But you can only exonerate that if it reveals something. What this play does is look at this guy from the beginning, the guttersnipe you can laugh at, but who has big aspirations, big ambitions, a sense of his country. But also at how dangerous it is, how these sick achievements come from obsessive aspiration. My job is to reveal the appalling achievements of these people.”
For Goodman, underlying the series of bad men he has made such a fine career in portraying, there is something about Britain’s “national memory” that makes it more likely that Jews will be cast as villains.
I thought he was going to say “cast as Jews”. But he shakes his head. “It’s more disturbing than that. Society looks at me and my features and casts me in a certain way — as a Cuban, Jew, Coriscan, Arabs — foreigners. Other Jewish people may not feel this, but as an actor it’s different.”
Politically engaged theatre with a moral message is not usually the kind of show that fills West End theatres. But then central to this one is a figure who sits in the imagination of the general public like no other. And driving the actor playing it is a belief in the power of theatre to transform audiences. The same was true of the young Goodman, who was politically as well as artistically driven.
“When I left Rada I had no job, no agent, and spent all my life in agitprop street theatre. I went back to the East End, where I had grown up, to raise money to get rid of blocks [of flats] with rats in. I jumped up on [pub and restaurant] tables in the West End to stop them knocking down Eros. We raised money for good works and lived in communes in Kentish Town. I wasn’t Marxist like Brecht but that was the ethos when I left Rada. The idea of being a successful West End actor was utterly anathema.”
It’s a belief that still drives the award-winning Goodman. And he admits that, even now, it might make him difficult to work with.“The energy might be a bit daunting,” he concedes. Although any artistic clashes tend to be with other equally driven Jews. There was one in particular with Steven Berkoff.
“We did [Berkoff’s play] Kvetch in the West End. He would tell me, Anita Dobson, and Thelma Ruby to freeze upstage in that Berkoff style, and then he would go up front to the audience. But a speech that on the page would only be 40 seconds long literally became seven or eight minutes. He’d get off with the audience. He’d love them, they would love him. But meanwhile the rest of us were all standing upstage frozen. So I thought: ‘Enough of this.’ And when it came to the bit where Steven had to freeze, I said to myself: ‘It’s my turn now’ and I started doing what he did. He didn’t like it at all.”
Clearly the audience did. And audiences have continued to like Goodman. Perhaps his latest role is one West End performance that even his radical younger self would forgive. “I’m doing it because the play says we have got to stop these bastards and we have to smell them coming. Especially in difficult times.”