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Al Pacino’s great dictator draws the stars

Al Pacino's portrayal of a Hitler-type dictator in a German play half-a-century old is turning into the theatrical event of the current New York season.

Pacino is only one of the stars appearing in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, an allegory of the Führer’s rise to power, in a revival directed by Simon McBurney, a British theatrical guru.

Such is the buzz surrounding the production that the audience attending previews at the arts centre near Brooklyn Bridge hosting the show has boasted as many celebrities as the cast.

Sir Paul McCartney, Lou Reed and Jon Bon Jovi from the music world as well as actress Shirley MacLaine have all turned out to witness the performances of Pacino, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and Billy Crudup.

A run on Broadway, a transfer to the West End and a European tour are now under discussion for the play, which charts its hero’s metamorphosis from underworld hoodlum to dictator.

Set in an economic slump on the eve of a war waged against a moustachioed tyrant, the play is particularly poignant in the current political climate.

For those rallying behind President Bush in his campaign against Saddam Hussein, the play’s message could be read as a call to arms against dictators everywhere. “The bitch that bore this beast is in heat again,” 62-year-old Pacino, out of character, warns the audience in the drama’s closing lines.

The play is more evidence of the trend for big name actors, both in America and Britain, who can command huge fees for their appearances on screen, to tread the boards for far more modest rewards.

The production is a triumph for McBurney, a Cambridge contemporary of Emma Thompson, and best known for his work with the trailblazing Theatre de Complicité. He said that, although he had worked for the New York stage before, he kept making what he thought were outrageous requests for artistic control of the production.

He demanded seven weeks of rehearsals and the final say on all casting. He even requested that singer-songwriter Tom Waits should compose some of the music for the show. But such is his standing as one of the world's top directors that all his demands were met. “So then I really was in a fix,” he said. “So I just went ahead and did it.”

Since playing Michael Corleone in The Godfather 30 years ago, Pacino has been nominated for Oscars eight times and won once, for Scent of a Woman. During that time he has created such screen characters as Serpico, Scarface, Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy and the small-time mobster in Donnie Brasco.

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