|Photo by Prudence Upton|
Dario Fo and his wife, Franca Rame, were a famous team of political clowns. Inspired by the traditions of the Italian Commedia dell'arte - of 16th century origins - comedy sketches that were both scripted and had improvisational freedoms, freedoms that could be pertinent to the political 'auras' of the local community they were playing in - using character 'types' that the populace recognised by particular masks - both half or full. Fo and Rame began their theatre work as political 'sketch' artists lambasting the political authorities in the Italian governmental and institutional hierarchy. They were invited to develop a program for television and became even more famous and dangerous for those that had the "power". They also wrote Plays. Last year the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presented ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST*** written in 1970 and now present his most famous play NO PAY? NO WAY! - 1974.
The work is known as a Marxist political farce. It springs from a consumer backlash, led by the women, against the high prices of the everyday necessities in the local supermarket. They refuse to pay and instead "liberate" the goods they need from their shelves and take them home - it becomes a neighbourhood rite and riot. In this macho (male) world the women, of course, have to keep their actions a secret from their husbands. The men are much more conservative and serve the status quo fearing for their jobs, avoiding the Unions call for strike action - avoid attention at all costs. However, their curiosity is stirred with the intrusion of the local constabulary raiding their homes for evidence of the local supermarket perfidy.They are outraged - their wives would not dare do such a thing! One deceit leads to many others complicating the logic of everyday life by a hiding and a seeking for the 'truth'. The world of the play escalates into an hilarity of comic satire.
The women - forthright Antonia (Helen Thomson), leading her timid neighbour, Margherita (Catherine Van-Davies), into the maelstrom of rash comic catastrophes, are confronted by their husbands politically conservative Giovanni (Glenn Hazeldine) and macho swaggerer Luigi (Rahel Romain) who, too, are drawn into the storm whilst discovering their wives' outrageous temerity and, subsequently, having to deal with the hated authority of the snooping constabulary.
Director, Sarah Giles, has cast well and these four actors take to their tasks with joy and alacrity, finding the 'ego' of each character and skilfully fitting it to the necessary submission to an ensemble, interlocked for the farce mechanism: a precision of verbal and physical comedy of necessary fluidity. On contemporary Sydney stages a rarity to see. (see my blog on FAMILY VALUES).
Ms Thomson is in her usual element as a self-conscious commentator on Antonia's character and situation to score knowingly her laughs which, by the way - come in a profusion - is a comic exaggeration in the old commedia' tradition (with no mask) if not being at all a very real - 'be still my beating heart' - person. There is a contemporary necessity, layer, missing in her work:the revealed emotional truths. On the other hand the bewildered innocent, Margherita, from Ms Van-Davis, ricocheting from pillar to post in the dilemma of her situation is perfectly human in a Chaplinesque/Lucille Ball kind of way.
Mr Hazeldine is measured in the surety of the comic opportunities provided by his writer and is properly pathetic in his character's conservative comical stance - wonderfully human in Giovanni's entitled stupidities. The surprise is the hilarious presence and deft comic lightness of touch of Mr Romahn as a blonde lothario, Luigi - this young actor never rests on his laurels as a performer and has continuously grown in magnitude on the STC's stages. He has skills galore it seems and a charm and presence that attracts one's attention with ease. One longs for him to be facing the challenge of one of the great classic roles around his age. He seems to have a deep access to the tragedy of living and a courage to reveal it and yet seems to be maturely consoled with a comic irony of the "nothing matters' mantra of the great writer, Anton Chekhov - how and when did he get to 'know' this? Not many do. Only the great ones - those with what we call "Old Souls" - blessed (some say cursed) with a perception of the great width and depths of the accumulated wisdoms of the history of our species - swirling invisibly about us in the ether of time.
The fifth actor of this production, Aaron Tsindos, has the comic gift from Fo and Rame's imagination to be challenged to play four personas that demands a giddy entrance and exit, change of costume cyclone of precision. He manages it with panache.
The first act of this production, is satirically adapted by Marieke Hardy in a welcomed politically astute and contemporary way with words - what would one expect, Ms Hardy, coming from a family with a famous 'lefty' dad? She found the right language to press our buttons to a political consciousness that was exciting because we could see from what we heard in the theatre that this play is about us today. Not one part of her text adaptation was self-conscious or gratuitous. Mr Fo, was famous for his commedia dell'arte space for improvisation and I am certain he would have approved of her adaptations. This production of this first act fulfils the map-making that the Nobel Prize for Literature (1997) winning playwright, has drawn for his collaborators to succeed. The experience on the first act opening night was thus a dazzling, exhausting comic feast. Pert, relevant, ridiculous and celebratory. The interval was welcomed because it gave us an opportunity for pause for all of us to rewind and prepare to take off again.
Oh, if only Ms Giles and her company had been as faithful to the genius of Fo in the second act as they were in the first, and trusted that what Fo had written would be enough to do to serve this great political satire. The second act in this production literally broke up the set that was then dragged about the space creating 'dead time' for the interpolation of some comment or other - who cared? - about the world we are living in now that was extraneous to Fo's methodology, and most tragically, a derailing mechanism to the accumulative tempo of the comic structure of the farce.
For the study of the dramaturgical rules of structure for a successful farce, any farce - study: Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (THE MAGISTRATE - 1885), Georges Feydeau (CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS - 1884, A FLEA IN HER EAR - 1907) Ben Travers (ROOKERY NOOK - 1926, THARK - 1927), Philip King (SEE HOW THEY RUN - 1944), Ray Cooney (RUN FOR YOUR WIFE - 1964), Joe Orton (LOOT - 1967, WHAT THE BUTLER SAW - 1969), Michael Frayn (NOISES OFF), Richard Bean (ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS) and they will show you how it works.Teach you. Not only did Ms Giles break up the set but she braked the rules of the form she was working in. Unexpectedly, we were presented with a self-conscious and gratuitous set of contemporary offers that caused the actors to have to invent a whole other set of character motivations, to justify what they were asked to interpolate. To my mind, ruinously betraying Mr Tsindos' performance by causing him to extend and extend a whole bunch of funny walks and bits of business that took acres and acres of time for he suddenly had miles and miles of stage to traverse to get from one entrance to another to facilitate what ought to be a gob-smacking array of fast changes that are, when pulled off as written, are superlative moments for a true farceur - Tsindos was reduced to a clown act that in of itself was admirably clever - the John Cleese school of funny walks - but not useful to the comic intentions of Fo, the action of the mechanisms of the play. Mr Tsindos was as obvious as obvious could be, instead of shocking as amusingly shocking as he could be with the breakneck elision of time for his entrance and exit change of clothes and persona.
Played on a large set by Charles Davies (he seems to think and is indulged by the STC to build large scale every time - his THE REAL THING design was also an unnecessarily extreme vision - attractive for sure, but a tad over-the-top, the STC Design budgets seem to be very, very generous), that was manually pushed into place by the actors (and crew) - it seems to be the season trope with the other current production THE DEEP BLUE SEA's design, similarly dragged manually by the artists around the spaces for the action - an arbitrary decision by the Director. For what theatrical gain to the clarification of the play, one may ponder and be, ultimately, perplexed to find a satisfactory answer. The braking of the tempo of the play because of the Director's intervention to the structure of the playwriting threw the work into a working class sentimentality which when having an Italian folk song tagged onto the ending of the play, the tone of the night became maudlin and boringly bourgeois - oh, isn't that nice?
When this play first appeared in 1974, it caused riots in the theatre, which were taken out into the Italian streets and to the local super markets where there was a riotous 'liberation' of food goods. The police were called. At this production in the Drama Theatre there was not a flame of anger, rebellion, not a demand from anyone for our governments and institutions to do something other than 'spin' the moments with their empty words. There was no reportage of ransacking in Sydney, alas. Instead there were a glasses of wine and some canapés passed around to accompany blithe gossip about one's next job, or the weather, or, blah, blah, blah. Wasn't that fun?. No Fo or Rame heat there.
How comfortable it is to be in Australia!
We believe, like our Mr Morrison, in miracles, not actions for change.
P.S. I was in a production of this play in 1980 out at the Q Theatre in Penrith. Such a joy to do. I was lucky to play the role of the four personas.