Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Adrian Bhagat went to see Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Lace Market Theatre

In 1969 Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker and anarchist activist, was arrested on suspicion of planting a bomb in a bank in Italy. In fact, the bombing was probably committed by Fascist terrorists, wanting to destabilise politics and to give the police an opportunity to crack down on left-wing groups. Pinelli was interrogated on the fourth floor of the grim Milan police station until around midnight when he fell, jumped or was thrown from the window. The investigation ruled that his death was accidental but the circumstances were so suspicious they inspired Dario Fo to write this play.

So, prepare yourself for an evening of depressing, worthy theatre. Or, rather, don’t, because this play is an hilarious farce, hurtling through a series of ever more wacky and surreal scenes and subverting authority through ridicule. Set in the police station a couple of weeks after the death, the action is led by the Maniac who dances, sings, gurns, prances and laughs throughout. Disguising himself as an investigating magistrate, he persuades the police to invent ever more outlandish stories to explain away the death of the anarchist.

On a bleak set in tones of black, white and grey, with a backdrop of suspended frames which cleverly suggest the windows of the police station, the final hours of the dead anarchist are recounted. Every possible version of events that could clear the police of blame is tried for size. Did the man commit suicide because a telephone call from Rome had disproved his alibi? Or were the screams merely shrieks of laughter as he joked with the police? Was he wearing two pairs of shoes?

Chris Ireson plays the Maniac superbly, wandering through numerous accents (even doing a Sean Connery at one point), changing the mood and tempo at will and providing the laughs despite the serious subject matter. It’s a demanding role but he really cut the mustard. Tom Spencer was also very entertaining as the dim, ape-like bully-boy, Inspector Pissani, mentally three steps behind everyone else but always ready for a fight.

Dario Fo encouraged actors to ad-lib and wanted directors and translators to adapt the play freely for different cultures and situations. In this adaptation by Gavin Richards (who, incidentally, played the lascivious Italian captain in 'Allo 'Allo) there are references to Guantanamo Bay and Vietnam, prompting a complaint from one character that such references are anachronistic. This is followed by a discussion amongst the cast about the merits of Fo as a playwright and a moan about the standards of amateur dramatics. These breaches of the suspension of disbelief are carried on throughout the play. This device is perhaps used too much but at times it can be hilarious. At the very beginning an inspector warns that the playwright has the 'irrational hatred of the police typical of the left' and that he will no doubt use the play to make them look foolish, as indeed he does, repeatedly. This is a very accomplished production from the Lace Market with well-timed laughs and superb performances.

The Cold War period in Italy is known as the Years of Lead, characterised by political turmoil and extremist terrorism, much of it probably state sponsored. Dario Fo was himself affected by this when, as retribution for mocking the police, they commissioned a group of Fascists to kidnap, torture and rape his wife. The genius of this play is that it reveals the tragedy of state violence without ever letting up on the humour.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 8 October 2011


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