Sydney Theatre Company and Adshell present, an Australian Adaptation by Francis Greenslade and Sarah Giles, of ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST by Dario Fo, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. September 10 - October 27.
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST, is a play written by Italian Writer, Actor, Dario Fo, in 1970, in response to the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, following his arrest under suspicion of being responsible, as a terrorist, for a bomb explosion at a busy bank in Piazza Fontana, at the centre of Milan, in which sixteen people were killed and around ninety were injured. Pinelli was subjected to 72 hours of interrogation before 'falling' to his death from the station's fourth-storey window. The preliminary investigation concluded that the evidence pointed to 'accidental death'. A second inquiry claimed it was a suicide. "Was he pushed?" became the question of the hour, as inconsistency after inconsistency in the evidence was gradually revealed to the public. This play, '... ANARCHIST', came to fruition as a counter-inquiry to the misinformation being spread on both sides of the political landscape. Though, Pinelli, the 41 year old railway worker was indeed an anarchist by conviction, he was also a staunch pacifist, and a quiet family man. He has often been referred to as 'the seventeenth victim of Piazza Fontana'.
Fo began his career as a writer and actor of provocative sketches for Italian radio, became a 'variety Star' on television, and, with his wife Franca Rame, moved into creating work for the theatre, independent of sponsorship, finding critical success in a series of farces responding to current issues of the day, which put them both under the watchful eye of the government censorship and other establishment institutions (such as the church). From the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) program notes: "The right wing of the Christian Democratic Party was in government at the time, whilst the main opposing party was the Italian Communist Party. Each side using covert forces in an attempt to topple the other, it was a period of secrecy and unparalleled scandal ... Historians describe an "Italy of mysteries', whose course was determined by 'faceless men' and 'uncontrollable forces' acting as an 'alternative state'. ... Extremism on both sides - the left preaching revolution (Communists), the right (neo-fascists) working to bring a coup d'etat, creat(ing) a double threat of violence and terror". Fo and Rame were not affiliated to any organised political body but with Marxist teachings fuelling their world view were 'goaded by a situation of necessity' wrote and performed '... ANARCHIST,' as they felt that anger and action was the most respectful response to Pinelli's death.
ANARCHIST was built from 'zealously collected available material, using information passed on from journalists aligned with his cause and directly quoting some of the most ridiculous lines from both official inquiries. Pinelli was the anarchist of Fo's title, but other principal characters like the Inspector Pisani and the journalist Maria Feletti also have counterparts in the true story.'
Establishing the truth was not a matter of revenge, Fo insisted, but an essential step in enabling (citizens) to recognise the 'barbarities' of the present to prepare for the future. So, he wrote a grotesque farce about a tragic farce, scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the down trodden.
Fo was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature twice, and accepted it, finally, in 1997, surprised and shocked, that this august representative of the Establishment Order was so persistent, declaring that, they, the Establishment, usually took great pains to shut him up and clap him in handcuffs.
The STC has commissioned an adaptation for their production from Francis Greenslade, and the Director, Sarah Giles. It is a fairly faithful and respectful adaptation, using the comedy tropes of the Italian traditions of commedia dell'arte and of the giullari (Medieval strolling players) that have evolved into the great contemporary theatre 'clowns': caricature, comedy 'patterned' routines - the lazzi - and the ingenious use of props for creating and extending visual jokes, and incorporating the political ridiculousness and boisterous playfulness of the Fo.
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST, fitted into the STC's 2018 season and its exploration of power and social responsibility - e.g.THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI - and Kip Williams in his Message in the STC program goes on to say:
Where the programming of this play really clicked into place was when Sarah (Giles) proposed a thrilling and audacious idea. What if the anarchist - a role traditionally played by a man - were played by a woman, namely comic genius Amber McMahon? More still, if the entire cast of male roles were played by women in drag? ... We both buzzed with excitement at Sarah's vision for this play: using an all-female cast to explode the play's examination of structures of male authority. ... 'Ms Giles says:
All signs pointed to this version of this play. The idea of an all female cast highlighted Dario Fo and wife Franca Rame's politics in a way that felt truly exciting - it breathed a new life into the play for me. ... To do these things is a political act. ...'
Certainly, the premise of Fo's play, in the face of another Prime Ministership change erupting from the inner machinations of the factions within a political party; the recent ructions of the revealed 'culture' wars between the present government and the supposed independent Australian Broadcasting Corporation - the ABC - and their appointed representatives; the 'criminal' behaviours of our Financial Institutions by a Royal Commission, to be exposed, seemingly, abetted by a 'sleeping' governmental power structure; and the glaring facts of the lack of women represented in positions of decision (power), clangs loudly, ominously, when we read of 'the mysteries of Italy' that Fo wished to interrogate crowded with 'faceless men', 'uncontrollable forces' creating 'alternative states' and to glance at the present state of our own Democratic Pillars of Community.
The women in this company: Caroline Brazier (Superintendent), Julie Forsyth (Inspector Bertozzo), Bessie Holland (Inspector Pisani), Annie Maynard (Maria Felettti/ Constable 1), Amber McMahon (The Maniac) and Susie Youseff (Constable 2) have created 'in drag', with Costume, Wig and Make-up help, an hilarious band of hapless men, each of the actors wearing their 'identities' with a supercilious, satirical relish - they seem to be enjoying the joke of the appropriation of sexual identity and skewering it to a sticking post, even if it were being done, I perceived, gently, even with respect! - odd, I thought, that there was no viciousness of cultural retribution, or, maybe, Kevin, that is too male a trait for these actors to employ or feel? Too much?
Julie Forsyth is, however, amazing and Bessie Holland, frightening.
What I wished more of with these performances was to be able to see, feel, the reason of why they were doing it, why they had agreed to adopt/adapt their roles - one wished that within the cleverness of the creations that they have made that there was, as well, the necessary political fury of the #Metoo movement and its growing profile. The actors seemed to be too careful within their physical constructs, too polite, and lacked the daring of spontaneity in the physical comedy - no anger which was the dynamic fuse of the Fo clowns in the original, no anger at their sex's subjugation to the male contsruct about them - they lacked the possible danger of their 'drag-King' choice, they were held in by safety first, possibly for clarity.
This may have come from the 'harnessed' bourgeoise comedy of manners that this text and style of production pursued, under the inspiration of Mr Greenslade and Ms Giles, both, ultimately purposed to comic exactitudes of timing with funny dialogue of positive ridiculousness and rehearsed routines, technically imprisoned with each other, with some props, with some scripted sound cues/jokes and with special visual effects, that in their execution were performed for a safety's sake, respectfully.
There was no risk in-the-moment going on, no real zaniness on stage, no 'circus', no-one metaphorically swinging on a trapeze without a net beneath them. These performers had hoisted themselves onto a 'trapeze' of dangerous impersonation (will we succeed?) but kept the net below, tautly stretched. What? Why? To keep them from artistic humiliation? They were expert but 'netted', collared.
There were Artists on stage but no zanies, no disturbers of the peace - no 'Furies', no Drag Kings! These performers gave us the literal version of the euphemism of 'THE KINDLY ONES' rather than true social/cultural FURIES. There was no sweat of fear of the fury overtaking them, no fear of arrest, by the infuriated champions of the present status quo on this stage. There was, absolutely, no need to shut this company up or to put them in handcuffs. They wore the trappings of male impersonation, they politely exposed the ridiculousness and stupidity of these men in that guise - as the men in the original would have had to do in their guise of commedia clowns, because of the writing's demands. These wonderful actors did not go into satiric fury, where angels fear to tread passions, despite this given opportunity.
We are told that Fo, in the first production, would improvise a prologue discussing the latest daily political developments and events connecting them to the central themes of the '... ANARCHIST'. One has read of his company's penchant for off-the-cuff improvisation within the structure of the scripted work - following the traditions of the commedia dell'arte - and one longed for this STC company to cut loose and bring the pregnant commonalities of the contemporary Australian political scene into the centre of this work. These actors hardly broke into authentic possession of anger.
There was no identifying connection to the growing fury, 'revolution', that some of the Australian community feels at this time with its own governments' power machinations, and the present status of women in our society, let alone with the international circus of the US politics and the outrages of the Kavannagh nomination to its Supreme Court and the degradation of the courage of Christine Blasey Ford (and all women). None of this currency seemed to occur, as an energy force to fuel this production. We, instead watched well rehearsed artists on the stage in the Drama Theatre in the Sydney Opera House. There were no anarchists on stage, simply comic actors managing plotted laughs, very, very well. There was no sweat from the effort to maintain restraint, it was already restrained. There was no visible grasping for control of the creative need for this play to be spoken, now, today, in the Opera House, by these women, for it, all, was sedately in control, in tidy rehearsed restraint, for a comfortable night in the theatre. A production that would entertain and not, definitely NOT, 'disturb the horses'.
I have fond memories of the rapturous bourgeois reception of Brecht's THE THREEPENNY OPERA, as part of the repertoire of the Old Tote's Opening season for the Sydney Opera House, 45 years ago in November, 1973, with that comfortable middle-class audience, at the Cultural Event of the Century - the opening of the building - with their well priced ticketed seats, laughing with and singing internally, along, to, a play that ought to have shaken them to the cores of their social conscience. Nothing much, it seems, has changed in the exact theatre where both these plays, THE THREEPENNY OPERA and ACCIDENTAL DETAH OF ANARCHIST, critiques of 'power and social responsibility' by Marxist authors, were presented by the leading establishment theatre in Sydney: The Old Tote, historically, and the STC, extantly.
This production is a successful comic evening in the theatre, amusing and especially so for the 'political act' of having women play traditional male roles. For, after all, we, Aussie's have had men play women for yonks - Dame Edna a staple of our culture - swinging it around, can be oh, so daring and 'modern', a revolutionary gesture. Yes?
What an opportunity for real protest, revolution, in the theatre, has been lost.
I find it objectively amusing that The Sun King, Louis XIV, was the sponsor of the greatest social cultural critic of his time, MOLIERE - an artist practising the arts and crafts of the Italian comedy dell'arte traditions - and censored him in no way at all. It took over a century and twenty odd years to pass before for the French people rebelled against such power. Let us hope that it is takes less times for Equality to be achieved in our time.
Bring back Melissa Bubnic's 2015 play, BOYS WILL BE BOYS*** (incidentally, I observe, the STC produced it in its smallest theatre at The Wharf, fearing that its politics might inhibit its commercial success?) It was, and is, a 'political' work that has more contemporary resonance than this production of ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST. More's the pity.
More Courage, I reckon. I laughed, I smiled, I admired, and then had some fish and chips while I read some more of MOBY DICK. My world not perceptibly changed at all by my attendance at the STC's ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST.