Hilarious, satirical, superbly staged and brilliantly performed, Accidental Death of an Anarchist has hit the Lyric, Hammersmith in an explosion of theatricality following its sensational success at the Sheffield Playhouse.
Hilarious, satirical, superbly staged and brilliantly performed
From the outset it’s as though a starter gun has been fired for a race that goes at the speed of a 100m sprint but sustains the excitement of that pace for a couple of hours. Setting the tempo is Daniel Rigby (Maniac), from whom words flow in torrents and yet whose speeches are delivered with such precise enunciation that nothing is lost. The only way a line might be missed is as it’s drowned out by outbursts of extended laughter, which if he were to wait every time for them to fully subside would have us there till the early hours.
The lunacy of the play is set on the third and subsequently the fourth floor of police headquarters. (Even the transition from one floor to the other is amusingly clever; its the same set with a twist in which Designer Anna Reid has cleverly captured institutional blandness.) The events follow on from the death of a falsely-accused anarchist whilst in police interrogation. Debate rages over whether the young man, whose body was found on the pavement outside the building, accidentally fell from the window, was pushed or committed suicide. The police have two versions of the incident on their files, making them more or less complicit in his defenestration, depending on which you prefer.
Enter The Maniac who has been brought in on charges of impersonation, something at which he subsequently proves to be an expert. However, he has a defence for any and every charge they can bring: he is legally certified as insane and has a framed copy of the certificate to prove it. Lest anyone be in doubt, believes that ‘all the world’s a stage’ and that he is called upon to live a life of performance in front of the populous, who are his audience. Unable to resist the thrilling opportunities presented by his current situation, he immerses himself into the police investigation of the anarchist’s death by disguising himself firstly as the judge, who insists the case be reopened, then as a forensic expert and finally as a bishop. He thus performs to an audience both on and off stage with a broken fourth wall.
The play has its origins in the death of Giuseppe 'Pino' Pinelli, aged forty-one, a well-known member of anarchist organisations in Milan who ‘fell’ from a window while in police detention following a deadly bomb explosion in the city in 1969. Following investigations into police behaviour his death was declared to be an accident and he was posthumously cleared of any involvement when others were found to be responsible. The event caused huge controversy and Dario Fo along with his wife Franca Rame penned this play as an excoriating farce about the functioning of the police force.
Fo was not precious about his work and encouraged translators (in this case Tom Basden) and directors (here Daniel Raggett) to adapt his plays to the circumstances of the day; an attitude he espoused from the commedia dell'arte of his native country. Basden has embraced Fo’s wish wholeheartedly. The play is now set in London and is replete with direct references to police scandals, botched investigations and the criticisms of what goes on behind the walls of police stations. These references pack a punch and are speedily interwoven with all the blatant humour to which they stand out in stark contrast. Their brazen inclusion as exemplars of ineptitude shock and amuse at the same time. The same cannot be said for the chilling statistics of deaths in custody and the paltry number of charges brought against officers, displayed after the final curtain. We might laugh at the follies of the Force but for those caught up in the reality of them it is anything but a joke.
For the cast, all the nonsense is taken very seriously, of course, for maximum effect, starting with Howard Ward who, as Inspector Burton, thinks he has a simple investigation to carry out of the sort he has done a thousand times before. He’s clearly risen in rank from the days when he was PC Plod, but has retained something of the manner, hence it takes very little time for him to be out of his depth and enraged by the non-conformity of The Maniac. Meanwhile, Tony Gardner gives the impression that Superintendent Curry’s boots never walked the streets, but that rather he had contacts in all the right places to elevate him above his level of competence. Po-faced and struggling to remember which version of events he is currently adhering to, his open reminders to himself of the current cover-up are, of course, amusing but also ring very true of many in authority. Between these two officers, other levels of incompetence are occupied by an endearing, Asian-looking (his family are actually from Grenada) Shane David-Joseph as Constable Joseph and Jordan Metcalfe as Detective Daisy. In the latter’s case the name probably says it all. How could he possibly be taken seriously? Metcalfe, as something of a fall guy, supplies plenty of evidence of the officer’s ineptitude. David-Joseph, apart from accentuating the Met’s inclusivity and the nature of its multi-racial task force, also hints that some retain a semblance of sanity despite the fools who surround them, though that probably won’t last, as his moments of contributing to the fray suggest. Which leaves Ruby Thomas, who in contrast to others, enters with a demeanour of privilege from another world to brandish her limited journalistic skills as Fi Phelan and also become embroiled in the chaos. The casting chemistry is explosive. Rigby, however, is the man in charge and around whom everything revolves and by whom the frenetic pace is determine. Accolades should shower upon him for this performance, as they should for Basden for his hilarious, penetrating and contemporary adaptation and Raggett for directing a block-buster show.
When Fo was warded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature, the committee commended him as one "who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. Oh that he were still with us! But at least we can be thankful that his radical theatrical tradition is being perpetuated in productions such as this.