The Italian playwright Dario Fo has had his plays translated into 30 languages and staged in more than 40 countries from Bulgaria to South Korea. Maybe his most famous play, The Accidental Death of An Anarchist was such a success in its fringe venue (1979-1980) that it transferred to the Wyndham Theatre in London's West End from 1980-1981, followed by Can't Pay, Won't Pay which ran in the West End from 1981 for two years. The political climate in Italy that Fo was raging against was not so dissimilar from the climate in Thatcherite Britain and resonated with audiences, including new audiences – Accidental Death of An Anarchist after its 250th performance at Wyndham's became the longest-running alternative theatre production that the West End had seen.
A successful one-month run of Accidental Death at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre that finished earlier this month gained five-star reviews – Time Out called it “Wickedly funny”, while London Theatre Reviews wrote, “It's doubtful whether a production could be any more timely than this”. Of course, Fo would have hoped that 50 years on, his 1970 play about the devastating 1969 bomb in Milan's piazza Fontana would no longer seem relevant. It is a political satire on the ‘accidental death' of a railway worker (and anarchist) who was wrongly accused of the bombing and ‘fell out' of an upper window while in police custody. The Lyric relocated the play to modern-day London with the topical tensions of corruption, coverups and violence – a “pertinent adaptation of this comic masterpiece,” said The Stage.
Another Fo play, from the same period, Trumpets and Raspberries, has just opened at West Kensington's Barons Court Theatre. It was first performed in Italy in 1981 (Clacson, trombette e pernacchi) and centres around Gianni Agnelli, the head of the Fiat corporation, in a farcical plot. It is good to see Fo's wife, the brilliant comic actress Franca Rame, credited as the play's co-author, as while Fo was the lone recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, he admitted that almost all his plays were co-written with Rame.
Simon Allder, a bilingual actor with Italian and British roots who lives in London, though grew up in Rome, is in the cast.
In my final performance at the Court Theatre Training Company in London – says Allder – where I graduated a few years ago, I performed, obviously in English, a monologue from Pirandello's The Rules of the Game (Il giuoco delle parti), I have always wanted to bring an Italian author to the English stage. For me today, it is a joy, as well as a source of pride, to have the opportunity to perform in a play by Dario Fo here in London.
The Swedish Academy, on awarding the Nobel Prize, praised Fo as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. Defending the oppressed was a battle he maintained until his death at 90 in 2016 in his beloved Milan, the setting for so many of his plays. It is unsurprising that a fellow-Milanese, Silvio Berlusconi, was a continual target for his barbs from the moment the billionaire media tycoon entered politics in 1994. Fo was a talented artist and stage designer, a flamboyant and virtuoso actor, a theatre director and a songwriter too.
Today, it is almost easier to find an Englishman who knows Dario Fo rather than Dante Alighieri. The poet's The Divine Comedy has never been presented in the West End, while the playwright from Lombardy continues to have successful productions in London, and throughout the UK.
Political relevance is what keeps these plays alive. Can't Pay? Won't Pay! centres on a group of housewives who are against the rising prices at their local supermarket in a working-class suburb of Milan, because of high inflation. Amusingly (for an anti-Brexit ex-pat living in Italy) the play seems more relevant to Blighty than Italy just now. Two weeks after the play's first performance, women in Milan began taking control of supermarket tills and paying the prices for items as they were before the rise in costs.
Fo said at the time:
It emerged during cross-examination that the prices fixed by the supermarkets were out-and-out robbery. In the end all the women who had been charged were freed because “there was no case to answer”. To put it simply, the court decided that those shoppers had paid the correct value of the goods… The bosses were the real thieves.
In Trumpets and Raspberries, Agnelli is disfigured in a failed kidnap attempt and rescued by Antonio, one of his employees, who, escaping from gunfire, leaves his coat over Agnelli's body. Doctors then mistake Agnelli for Antonio, and his face is reconstructed to resemble the worker. The farce sees the billionaire slotted into Antonio's modest life while he slowly recovers his memory.
With the UK's current millionaire Prime Minister, the theme of class difference rings true (Rishi Sunak had to be shown how to use his contactless card at a petrol station photo-op last year, wore £490 Prada loafers on a visit to a building site, and asked a homeless man at a shelter if he worked for a business) and shines a light on governmental decisions, the police force, and decisions in the medical field.
Dario Fo always staged his plays in places where everyone could come and watch them, keen that cost wouldn't be a barrier. Baron's Court Theatre ticket prices are just £15, but £10 for “Students, unemployed, over 60s, NHS staff, and members of the Agnelli family.” Also, free tickets are offered to those with a Ukrainian passport. Trumpets and Raspberries runs until 6 May.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.