History as farce – or tragic-comedy
Guest reviewer Stuart Christie attended the opening night of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist at the Stables Theatre.
The action begins, we are told, shortly after an actual series of co-ordinated bomb outrages in Milan and Rome on 12 December 1969, explosions that killed 16 and injured over 120 random victims in what became known as the Strategy of Tension. The subsequent police investigation into the ‘bombings’ (the latest in an ongoing series of alleged ‘anarchist-leftist’ attacks which began the previous year) was led by Chief Inspector Luigi Calabresi and his boss Chief Superintendent Antonio Allegra of Milan’s Special Branch (Questura). On the night of the explosion — and the following day — over 100 anarchists were arrested, 27 of whom were taken to San Vittorio prison, the rest being held for interrogation in Milan police headquarters in the Via Fatebenefratelli.
Among those held were a number of members of the Anarchist Black Cross (CNA), an anarchist prisoner support organisation, including its secretary, Giuseppe Pinelli. Late in the evening of 15 December, after more than 48 hours in police custody, the 41-year-old railwayman was taken to Calabresi’s fourth floor office for questioning. Present in the room were six policemen: Calabresi himself, Vito Panessa, Giuseppe Caracuta, Carlo Mainardi, Pietro Mucilli and Carabinieri lieutenant Savino Lograno.
Around midnight, Aldo Palumbo, a journalist with the Communist Party paper L’Unita, was having a smoke in the courtyard when he heard a series of thuds, the sound of something bouncing off the cornices as it fell from the fourth floor. Running over he found the body of Pinelli sprawled in the flowerbed. According to the duty doctor Nazzareno Fiorenzano, he had suffered horrific abdominal injuries and a series of gashes on the head. The autopsy showed that he was either dead or unconscious before he hit the ground. A bruise very much like that from a karate blow was found on his neck.
The play opens in the ground-floor office of short-tempered CID Inspector Bertozzo (played convincingly by Rob Dyer – who bears a remarkable resemblance to the real-life Inspector Calabresi). Also in attendance is Bertozzo’s bumbling Sancho Panza-like Carabinieri constable played by Henry Haylor. The set is simple but well-designed, with accurately observed props reminiscent of CID/secret police offices everywhere — desk, chairs and filing cabinets just as in any ordinary office, and, nice touch, a photo of the ‘leader’, in this case Italian president Giuseppe Saragat. Visible through the fateful window is a backdrop painted by local artist Yvonne Rees.
Events gain momentum with the entrance of Bertozzo’s first case of the day, a character simply described by the play’s author Dario Fo as the Maniac. Played brilliantly by the charismatic Rick Baker, the Maniac has been arrested on charges of personation, but without any apparent attempt to cause harm or gain pecuniary advantage from this, the latest in a long history of seemingly psychotic masquerades. But far from being mad, the Maniac is the least mentally disturbed person in the building; he is, in fact, a one-man Greek chorus, an unpredictable situationist Till Eulenspiegel dedicated to exposing injustice and the political machinations of a corrupt state.
By various wily strategems the mercurial Maniac acquires the case notes of the interrogation of the defenestrated anarchist in Bertozzo’s filing cabinet and, smartly dressed this time, appears, in Scene 2, in the fourth floor office of brutal Chief Inspector Pissani (played by Andy Godfrey), a thinly veiled Luigi Calabresi, the senior officer present during the fatal interrogation.
Passing himself off as the senior examining magistrate in the case, the suave, fast-talking Maniac soon enmeshes Pissani, his superior (an equally thinly disguised Chief Superintendent Antonio Allegra, played admirably by Rob Hustwayte) and another maladroit Carabinieri constable (the hapless Henry Haylor, again, mustachioed this time) in his wild machinations to reconstruct — apparently for their benefit, to clear the police of culpability — the circumstances and chronology of events leading up to the death of the anarchist. The Maniac’s painstaking, relentless — and hilarious — Columbo-like cross-examination reduces the police officers to snivelling wrecks, finally eliciting the truth of what happened that night.
Another layer of moral complexity to the fast-moving final act is added by the appearance of sophisticated ‘investigative’ journalist Feletti (played by Liz Leonard). Feletti, apart from adding glamour to the production, is, in reality, a Communist Party hack pursuing her own self-serving Party agenda, who provides Dario Fo with the opportunity to leave the audience with a choice of two possible equally dramatic endings. It is she who finally uncovers the true identity of the Maniac as an avenging angel, an editor-journalist of the recently-launched extra-parliamentary left-wing newspaper Lotta Continua, sworn enemy of the Italian Communist Party.
Director Andrew Bruce has done Hastings and The Stables a great service in bringing us his wonderfully staged and well-designed production of Fo’s formidable 1970 political satire. Great cast, great chemistry! Adapted by Gavin Richards (who played the role of the Maniac in Channel 4’s 1983 production) from Gillian Hanna’s translation of the play, Andrew Bruce maintains the author’s commedia dell’arte trademark that calls for out-of-date historic references in the script to be replaced by more current references and witty asides and improvisations that give fresh life and context to the spirit of the play for today’s audiences. Friday’s enthusiastic first night’s full-house audience went a long way to explaining the previous day’s (understandably) poor turnout for the local police commissioner elections. The spirit of Dario Fo still burns brightly…
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo, directed by Andrew Bruce. The Stables Theatre, Hastings, Tuesday 20 to Saturday 24 November 2012 (www.stables-theatre.co.uk, 01424 423 221).
Read about the events behind Giuseppe Pinelli’s death here.
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