Friday, 14 October 2016

Dario Fo 'The People's Court Jester'

Dario Fo died today at the age of 90, his work has inspired and in a strange way haunted me ever since I was handed a bright orange copy of his 1974 masterpiece Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the age 17. Drama was the first subject I’d really been any good at, I’d enjoyed and excelled at drama throughout GCSE so taking it at A levels was a no-brainer, but as I went through sixth form, I began to have doubts whether drama was the right move after 18, ‘perhaps I would be happier in media studies, History was clearly a much safer break and besides do I really want to make theatre? Yeah, it’s alright, but as a career?’ That all changed with the discovery of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. This was a play which had the energy of The Young Ones and the politics of Brecht. I had been interested in politics at school and I loved comedy and theatre, however up until this point they had remained separate passions. Political theatre, as I understood it back in 2007, was dry and serious, it involved men in suits and ties, walking around old buildings discussing complicated foreign policies, or making sense of the economy, political theatre was important and was staged at The Royal National Theatre and was written by men whose names began with Sir. Dario Fo changed all that for me, in his work Fo along with his wife and collaborator Franca Rame created a space where Karl Marx and Groucho Marx could exist together. 

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Accidental Death of an Anarchist remains one of the funniest plays I have ever read, at the age 17 it blew my mind. I was cast as the Maniac, and I became obsessed with learning everything I could about the work and its creator. Every night I would leaf through the script with its bright orange cover and the grainy photo of the Milan Police Station, reading the introduction and searching the internet for more information about him.  In time I would discover other satirists like Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci. I would discover great clowns like Chaplin and Keaton, I was yet to enter the world of stand-up comedy, before all of that there was Dario Fo.

In Britain we often talk of Fo as a Playwright, although, in all honesty he doesn’t really fit into that box. Fo came from a tradition of oral storytelling which he learnt from the great glassblowers of Milan as a child. His work mixed this oral tradition with clowning and slowly through devising, improvisation and dedicated research Fo would produce some of the finest post-war comedies in Europe. Fo was both hugely popular (his one-man show Mistero Buffo in the seventies could sell out Football Arenas) and politically dangerous to the Italian Establishment. Undercover Police Officers would often attend productions of Accidental Death, which was inspired by the real-life death of a Milanese railway worker accused (and later exonerated) of a terrorist attack. Fo didn’t just see the farce that politics was, he used farce as a weapon to expose the hypocrisies and corruption.  As well as a great artist he was also a lifelong political campaigner, his political activism resulted in him being refused a visa to enter the USA for many years. For a British audience the best way I can describe Dario Fo, is part Harold Pinter, part Rik Mayall, part Tony Benn.

In 1997 Fo was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature, there’s always the danger that artists who were radical in their youth can be swallowed up by the establishment, they become safe, their work becomes bland and nasal gazing. This was not the case for Fo who remained a force of satirical nature spending his later years skewering the corruption of Berlusconi’s Government.   

At University I discovered so many great contemporary theatre-makers, yet as I approached my final undergraduate project I found myself returning to Fo for inspiration, here I would discover so much more of his work and realise the great tragedy that so many of the English translations we have of his work don’t do him justice.  Whilst studying on my Masters one day I was asked to bring in a play I knew well and could easily describe the plot off. The answer was obvious as I reached for the now bruised and battered orange book from my bookshelf. 

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