Before the glitzy, transient landscape of Fake News, we had the sinister reign of “alternative facts.” Dario Fo’s sardonic, wisecracking black farce, performed at the Sewell Barn Theatre in Gavin Richards’ fast-paced, swearword-strewn English adaptation (as approved by Fo himself) finds three Italian policemen frantically trying to get their story right after an anarchist they were cross-questioning is found to have died by falling out of the window of their interrogation room. The issue is whether that fall happened voluntarily, accidentally or deliberately at the hands of his questioners. Desperately, the policemen concoct different versions of their evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves, but the wilder their “alternative facts” get, the more they incriminate each other: “Galoshes are a ridiculous garment, and anarchists wouldn’t be seen dead in them!” explodes the Superintendent in response to one particularly bright (stupid) idea from a subordinate. Mastering (and creating) all this chaos is the Maniac, a superbly witty trickster who has inveigled his way into the situation disguised as a visiting investigative judge, pretending to offer help rather than criticism: he explains that their story lacks any believable humanity, and that’s the problem he can solve for them, if only they take his advice.
Fatally, the policemen are lured into the Maniac’s game: but we already know that the Maniac’s compulsion to act, to extemporise characters, and to draw those around him, unwittingly, into what he calls “real-life acting”, amounts to madness as much as brilliance, has facilitated multiple criminal breaches of trust, and has seen him institutionalised no less than 16 times. This madness, which he terms ‘histromania’, allows Fo to satirise the very act of acting on stage, stretching and even snapping our suspension of disbelief at will. It also lets the play itself turn on its characters, and even, dramatically in this production, on Fo himself as playwright: its surreal self-consciousness enables the piece to achieve some truly original moments of tension, smashing nonchalantly through the fourth wall to let actors comment directly on what they think of the play – and each other.
Directors Karl Hartland and Clare Williamson preside over a successful farce, powered throughout by a hyperactively brilliant, rapidly paced central performance from Hattie Scopes as the Maniac, whose machine-gun delivery of Fo’s punishing lines comes with shattering speed and clarity, while she clearly relishes the Maniac’s every new idea for mischief, throwing herself wholeheartedly into the part, not least into the pungent, politically neurotic intellectual grit beneath it all. Scopes gets fine support from Will Harragan as the Constables, two successive characters who embody the Italian caricature of the carabinieri, the idiot policeman (a trope made familiar to Inspector Montalbano fans today by the ever-bumbling Catarella). Harragan’s knack for physical comedy and lightly assured, deadpan delivery make him endlessly watchable. Another hallmark tactic of this production is its (generally well delivered) focus on farcical violence: it’s genuinely funny, and it keeps surprising you.
Our set is a period-perfect 1970s police office, with metal filing cabinet, battered desk and hatstand, and multiple archive boxes hiding both files and evidence. The all-important window (through which the unseen Anarchist jumped, fell, or was pushed, before the action begins) takes centre stage, with three higher windows framing a beautiful tripartite panorama of Milan’s skyline in black and white. Costumes by Brenda Jones are sensitively in keeping, with classic 1970s suits in muted colours for the men, and a rather chic Italian ensemble for our only female character, a sceptical journalist in a black leather skirt surmounted by a red top, and an expression of disgust, of equal visual verve.
Beside the notable skill of Scopes and Harragan, the rest of the amateur cast acquit themselves honourably, and the play never lacks momentum or vibrant silliness: indeed, it can feel quite an onslaught of words and ideas, as things on stage get madder and madder. Dominic Sands’ brittle Bertozzo becomes ever more naturally expressive as the evening goes on. Vincent M. Gaine gets magnificently angry as the frustrated Superintendent, and Emma Kirkham has plenty of fun with dim, defensive Inspector Pissani. Jess Hutchings’ late entry as the cool, composed and utterly competent journalist Maria Feletti is a gamechanger; the piece is too surreal to be serious, but there is a deadly darkness underneath all Fo’s jokes – the terror of living in a corrupt, Fascist state, highlighted here by Feletti’s comparative powerlessness, and the play’s final pair of possible endings, each disillusioning her ideals one way or another. Like Brecht’s brilliant The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which explains Hitler’s rise to power through the changing fortunes of cauliflower sellers in Chicago, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a humourous play about something fundamentally chilling; and, like Ui, it took its inspiration from a piece of real human history: the unexplained death of Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist railroad worker who died in police custody (by falling out of a window) in Milan in 1969. The best jokes are the blackest ones.
Reviewed at the Sewell Barn Theatre on Thursday 23 November 2017
Until 2 Dec: find tickets here