Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman | Malthouse TheatreLeft - Julie Forsyth. Cover - Julie Forsyth and Bille Brown. Photos - Jeff Busby

Dario Fo
is a recognised master in world theatre, and is reputedly the most performed living playwright of the last 40 years. His works draw heavily from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition – a vibrant, improvisational style of theatre popular in the Renaissance, where troupes of actors would travel the country providing free entertainment, relying largely on donations to survive. Their performances would combine instantly recognisable stock characters and familiar storylines with topical additions and local references to add some spice for audiences.

Fo’s politics lean decidedly to the left and his works are highly critical of those elements in society who abuse their power: politicians, royalty, the upper classes, the church. In 1997 he famously received the Nobel Prize for Literature for "emulating the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden." Outside of his home country of Italy, it is perhaps his 1970 work Accidental Death of an Anarchist which has brought him most recognition. But within Italy, he is best known for his legendary production of Mistero Buffo, in which he also performed, and which enjoyed an astonishing 5000 performances. The play, a satirical take on the medieval mystery plays, once aired on television and was labelled by the Vatican as “the most blasphemous show ever transmitted.”

In keeping with the commedia dell’arte tradition, and with Fo’s approval, his works are often translated into other languages with a modern local twist, and such is the case in this new adaptation of Elizabeth: Almost by chance a woman, by Luke Devenish and Louise Fox for the Malthouse Theatre.

The Elizabeth of the title is in fact Queen Elizabeth I (played by Julie Forsyth) and, apparently inspired by real life accounts, the play depicts her final day on earth. Quite literally refusing to lie down for fear she will be unable to get back up, she has spent the last 11 days without sleep. By the twelfth day she has gone mad, and it is through her deluded prism, we view the action of the play.

Far from the popular image of the Virgin Queen, but perhaps closer to reality, Fo's Elizabeth is portrayed as a foul-mouthed, narcissistic and obsessive individual. She is convinced that William Shakespeare has mined her life in the composition of his plays, including the greatest play of all, Hamlet, and while she feigns objections, she secretly longs to be immortalised by the Bard in the same way her predecessors were. In her deluded state she conjures Shakespeare, the greatest writer of the age, to orchestrate her final exit. In her imagination, he appears sometimes as himself, and sometimes in the guise of Lady Donna - a crude lady-in-waiting who speaks in a bawdy gibberish or grammelot, comprising every four-letter word known to man, plus a few new one’s to boot. But, in whatever guise, in the twisted narcissistic play she has created in her mind, it is the great Shakespeare who will guide her to the end.

Julie Forsyth, is perhaps an obvious choice to play Fo’s anti-heroic Elizabeth - her scoured vocals and stocky diminutive stature proving the very antithesis of more familiar regal portraits of the Virgin Queen by the likes of Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett. But while Forsyth successfully manages to shatter our traditional image of Elizabeth, her performance on opening night felt laboured and lacking a lightness of touch.

In contrast, Bille Brown revels in his dual roles of Shakespeare and Lady Donna, and is superb as both. He has a warm and graceful stage presence, ideal for this exaggerated Mr Perfect version of Shakespeare, and as the dirty Lady Donna he steals the show. There were strong performances too from David Wood as the archetypal courtier/spy Egerton, and Chris Ryan lends genuine dignity to the ill-treated jester, Thomas.

Anna Cordingley’s revolving set and lush period-style costumes are quite superb and together with Paul Jackson’s lighting, this is one of the better looking productions I’ve seen at the Malthouse. The formidable Mark Jones adds original music (plus an Elizabethan-style Laura Branigan cover) as well as appearing on stage in various minor roles.

True to Fo’s original, this production of Elizabeth: Almost by chance a woman, directed by Michael Kantor, revels in its iconoclasm, although any connections to the contemporary political scene are left unexplored. Perhaps opening night nerves can account for some of the stiffness I saw, and as the season progresses, the performances will no doubt free up. But this is quite a dense play, and for a work with its roots in the commedia tradition, this production at times suffered from a distinct lack of energy and spontaneity.

Malthouse Theatre presents
Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman
(Quasi Per Caso Una Donna: Elisabetta)
by Dario Fo | translated and freely adapted by Luke Devenish and Louise Fox

Director Michael Kantor

Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The CUB Malthouse
Dates: 3 April – 24 April 2010
Times: Tues @ 6.30pm, Wed - Sat @ 7.30pm, Sun @ 5.00pm
Matinees: Sat 10 & 24 April @ 2.00pm, Thurs 15 April @ 1.00pm
Tickets: $16.50 – $49 + min booking fee $1.50
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 03 9685 5111

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