An anarchist – almost certainly innocent of the terrorist bombing he’s been cuffed for – falls from a police station window in Milan.
What should we call it? A suicide? Murder? Or an accident?
Already, the linguistic loops of Italian master Dario Fo’s classic farce, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, wrap themselves beautifully around the political era of now: the fake news, the truthiness, the system of dishonest oafs governing an incredulous public.
And so rather than transplant the original’s setting, director Sarah Giles and co-adaptor Francis Greenslade (ABC’s Mad as Hell) rethink all the major characters, formerly men, as women in drag.
From Caroline Brazier and her daft Superintendent to Susie Youssef and her even dafter Constable, the brilliant comic actresses in this play satirise the self-destructive idiocy of male power, as their characters try to weasel their way out of accountability for the killing of the anarchist in question – the invisible, idealistic presence driving the narrative forward.
The other narrative engine is The Maniac (played by Amber McMahon), a pathological liar who infiltrates the police system, impersonating a judge, and then a forensics inspector, to extract and reveal the truth. The police officers in the scandal still purport to uphold justice.
But as a brazen fraudster, The Maniac has a different understanding of the power of dishonest language, and as she guides the Superintendent and his accomplices to calling the anarchist’s murder an “incident” and an “unpleasantness,” she lures them into revealing their own culpability.
After all, she says, “you can’t make an omelette without oppressing a chicken.”
Lines like that stand up. But the original’s absurdity, its broadness, its fundamental sensibility and its physical humour, in particular doesn’t always feel of a piece with today’s age of irony.
The play’s themes today lend themselves to a deeply multimedia production, perhaps. You can imagine a much more dynamic, culturally innovative staging that integrates the ways in which screen culture has shifted the nature of political sexism and language.
And despite the easy parallels of lying authorities and scheming, faceless men, the bigger picture has changed drastically. Fo wrote the play in the wake of the global ruptures of 1968 and as Italy slid toward a new form of fascism in its post-war chaos. Divided, it was a country looking for new directions, and its artists were drawing history and politics into the realm of myth and art.
It’s telling that the Giles and Greenslade didn’t have a play from the Australian canon they could draw on to realise their creative goals. Like this country’s cinema, Australian theatre often dwells on anxieties of national identity, on crises of individuals and families and outsiders, but few playwrights have advanced an analysis of political corruption as institutional and systemic in character: in our scripts it’s usually a few mad, psychopathic lone wolves to blame for failure, abuse and scandal.
Here, Fo takes the viewpoint that the entire apparatus in rancid. Gender-flipping – one of the big artistic trends of the moment, across stage and film – doesn’t advance that critique in a deep way.
When it happened in Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3, it allowed Kate Mulvany to inhabit a complex, crippled villain who was only available to male actors before. Here, the drag conceit recalls Melissa McCarthy’s recent lampooning of Trump crony Sean Spicer. With Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the creative and political potential of gender-flipping feels like it’s reaching its limit.
Yes, the new production satirises male systems of power, but Fo’s tale – based on a real connivance – isn’t just about male buffoons in power, but the system of power itself. After all, the anarchist’s murder reveals a wider conspiracy of police-sponsored terrorism. Giles’ production doesn’t dive into the thematic depths of that scenario.
Maybe that’s alright. Maybe. There are any number of good reasons to bring back a classic: perhaps the producers wanted nothing more than to showcase the comic gifts of Amber McMahon, who here, as The Maniac, does the opposite of what you’d expect a woman inhabiting a man to do.
Rather than swaggering and taking up space, she goes inwards: she’s an impish, strange, little man. It’s a wily snapping of expectations. And yet her performance carries the same directorial issue as the broader production: it operates at one adrenalised level, without the kind modulation of tone that might bring climaxes and shade to the absurd proceedings.
Amid the madness, Julie Forsyth’s Inspector Bertozzo is a wonderful, tiny cartoon miracle. Affected by her own delusions of male power, she sniffs the cover-up, and yet doesn’t realise the depth of police treachery. Like us, perhaps, systemic naivety is her downfall.
Forsyth’s performance leans right into a clever trick of the script: despite the Italian period setting, the dialogue is riven with Australianisms. As Inspector Bertozzo, Forsyth mansplains, manspreads, and twists her mouth around the broadest of vowels. When she cries out, “what a may-niac!”, it’s okker as hell – a well earned LOL in the most astute and hysterical performance of the show.
The slapstick pops with Stefan Gregory’s crisp, cartoon-y sound effects; the whole enterprise is a kind of sick Disney lie that’s burst into pastel life.
The joys of this high-energy production are the cast: the way they manically perform toxic masculinity, and clown it up relentlessly to undermine authority for two and a half hours.
Trent Suidgeest’s lights – bureaucratically fluorescent onstage – come up directly over the audience as the play begins and ends: the buck stops, evidently, with us, the voters who still don’t know how to find our own power and voices amid the muck of politics today.