FringeReview UK 2016
A New Venture Theatre production Accidental Death of an Anarchist explodes with a cast of six. Rod Lewis directs. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set is complemented at crucial points by Strat Mastoris’ lighting and Ian black’s sound design. Chris Stubbs’ music direction proves the highlight..
Rod Lewis directs Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the New Venture Theatre with a cast of six in one of the best NVT productions of recent times. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s forty-five degree edge-on set, squarely late 1960s with Olivetti typewriter and metal filing cabinets, is beautifully wrought. At crucial points Strat Mastoris’ lighting and Ian Black’s sound design snaps into another realm.
This is for English-speaking audiences and internationally Fo’s signature play, from 1970, and follows the real tumbling from a fourth floor Milan Central police window the previous year of a rail-worker and anarchist falsely accused of exploding a bomb. Pushed? Suicide? The judge refused the police explanation and sent an investigator; posthumously the anarchist was exonerated.
Fo, at ninety still an anarchist, hit upon an idea of genius: to present tragic murder as comedy. The result’s as devastating now as then. Actors are still instructed to insert contemporary material and either expatiate on their own lives or rasp other political points, even against Fo. At one point the one woman in the show – Heather Andrews – complains at Fo’s sexist tokenism. And so on. On this particular night David Cameron’s tax avoiding-father, his Eton fees and Brexit resignation are vividly denounced by The Maniac, Des Potton.
Potton strikes platinum as the man who being a Maniac can’t be charged with all his impersonations by the police team, in particular Nick Richards’ Bertozzo. Richards mentally twirls his moustaches as the hapless would-be-nabbing one who speaks out to the audience the fact that the playwright will inevitably be prejudiced against the police. This takes Pirandello’s Six Characters further than anyone but Pirandello might have imagined; and there are six characters.
French farce grafted onto commedia dell-arte hits its stride when the outwitting Maniac takes a phone call when alone, deciding on a new role three flights up in the police station, that very fourth floor. He becomes the examining judge; it’s Culann Smyth’s vicious Superintendent and sidekick Robert Purchese’s Mafioso Pissani whom he subjects to a ludicrous range of proofs about what really happened to the anarchist. At one point Purchese, all slicked hair and glinting half-smothered crucifix proves what a good Mafiosi he is: so stricken by the Maniac’s argument he attempts to hurl himself out of the window.
Jack Llewellyn Roberts’ Constable appears in both floors and pulls comically on the moustache flimsily donned to distinguish him from his incarnation mockingly described as his brother by the Maniac, in more deconstructive cast jokes. Lewis’ direction of other farcical plays comes to mind as Purchese is dragged perilously back by his foot. It’s a dangerous stunt rehearsed to the edge of danger. This is physical acting and blocking realized with a faultless cast.
Purchase with his fabulous downturned mouth breathes the essence of ratty braggadocio in the smaller Italian male. Smyth proves comically vicious with that combination of sententious bribery and putting the boot in beloved of corrupt policemen the world over.
The most miraculous of all set-pieces in the first half must be when the Maniac, recreating events has the whole team singing and marching to the Anarchists’ anthem. This brings the house down but even more difficult is it to begin the second half with the same ramped-up energy which the ensemble succeed in. Chris Stubbs’ music coaching and direction involves songs Fo himself composed, and Stubbs’ work here forms the comic highlight.
This male bondage is invaded by Andrews’ journalist Feletti – another consummate performance veering between hard-nosed journalist and appalled complicity with each side in turn as blame and guns are pointed. It’s Feletti whom the Maniac abets by pretending to achieve the opposite, to a denouement that shocks in its alternative endings. The heroic anarchic one’s replaced by a more conventional – till you find it’s worse. Fo pulls rugs and bombs till the end.
As one seasoned director noted, it’s a breathtakingly faultless production, completely transcending any amateur status. Director Lewis and some cast are professionals. It’s more than thoroughly first rate though. The timing, expressions and every inflection and blocking make this unrepeatable, down to the beautifully-paced moments where Potton stands outside the action – seamlessly returned to out of freeze-frame – to narrate meta-texts over the play. If the presiding spirit is not only the Maniac’s but Potton’s then it’s not easy to see this being bettered anywhere. Potton governs such narrative as we distrust with a ringing authoritative tone, both slightly deranged and supremely urbane: perfect trappings of the anarchic Fo himself.