Left – Julie Forsyth, Susie Youssef and Annie Maynard. Cover – Bessie Holland, Julie Forsyth, Caroline Brazier and Susie Youssef. Photos – Daniel Boud
It’s a little troubling when a subversive comedy about the death of an innocent activist under police interrogation, and the subsequent cover-up by a corrupt and authoritarian constabulary in politically unstable post-fascist 1970s Italy, feels unexpectedly relevant again in 2018. Perhaps it seems more instinctively evocative of our impressions of the political landscape and notoriously trigger-happy and justice-escaping police in America lately than our own, but it would hardly be a stretch to find troubling parallels to our homegrown history of police corruption and deaths in custody.
But this is a comedy, right…?
Well yes, this is definitely a comedy. A very, very funny and very, very silly quasi-surreal farce, yet one with a definite sting in the tail. That is a big part of the genius of Dario Fo, beautifully conveyed here in this witty and faithful new adaptation co-written by Francis Greenslade and director Sarah Giles. Fo’s play is a masterwork of using several buckets of sugar to help the very bitter pill go down, to make you have so much giddy fun laughing yourself silly while never letting you lose sight of an inherently ugly premise.
The action is entirely driven by the madcap meddling of “The Maniac”, a male role that the incomparably oddball Amber McMahon nevertheless seems born to play. He is a diagnosed lunatic repeatedly sent to the loony bin for impersonating various authority figures like priests, psychiatrists and surgeons. The Maniac may not be the titular anarchist, but at times certainly seems like it. Imagine a kind of brilliant trickster character who is a manic cross between the Joker, Sherlock Holmes and Bugs Bunny. He is unpredictable, uproarious, dangerous and very smart.
The cops are embroiled in an impending investigation over their widely suspected part in the suspicious death of an anarchist who plunged out of the fourth floor window of police headquarters. Was he thrown out? Was he pushed? Was he already dead or unconscious before hitting the pavement? The police claim it was suicide, yet the official findings rather oddly ruled this an “accidental death”. Members of the press are circling like vultures and the higher-ups seem to have determined that someone is – pardon the pun – going to have to take the fall for this. Overhearing many of these details and then rapidly learning more when left alone in their office, the Maniac is like a proverbial kid in a candy store. As a serial impersonator and something of a master of (increasingly improbable) disguises, the Maniac springs into action impersonating an investigating senior judge.
The blustering, abusive and altogether stupid cops immediately fall for it, and are practically tripping over each other with obsequiousness in front of this imposter, who they desperately hope can rescue them from their self-imposed predicament. Much of the action of the play concerns the Maniac-as-judge, comically grilling and bossing about these haplessly craven dullards, as he ostensibly tries to help them get their woefully inconsistent stories straight.
When dogged journalist Maria Feletti arrives to grill the police in turn on the case, the farcical nonsense quotient ratchets up several notches further. As the police are terrified of Feletti knowing they are under official investigation, the Maniac takes on yet an additional layer of disguise in the persona of a visiting police explosives expert. He absurdly lurches around with a fake wooden leg, eyepatch, supposedly glass eye, and outrageously silly wooden hand that is both far too long, and is a left when it should be a right. The bumbling policemen descend into abject panic.
Sarah Giles’ production is an absolute corker, beautifully setting the scene of a 1970 police office straight from the jump, with a breathtakingly good heightened-realist design by Jonathan Oxlade. This immersive set makes uncommonly good use of the often unwieldy “widescreen” proscenium of the Opera House’s Drama Theatre, transforming it into both the (conveniently nigh-identical) entire third and fourth floors of police headquarters. Its backdrop is dominated by the large windows from which the infamous defenestration of the stitched-up anarchist took place, complete with an impressive multi-layered model skyline beyond. The view of this panorama even shifts in apparent relative elevation when the action moves to a higher floor.
The costume design is also noteworthy, elaborately rendering the all-female cast into their male roles. If not necessarily believable, it is most certainly done to priceless effect, complete with 1970s moustaches and mutton-chops befitting these macho Italian coppers. Indeed, Julie Forsyth’s transformation into the diminutive Inspector Bertozzo is particularly striking, with a prosthetic receding hairline that renders her into a kind of screeching redheaded Andy Sipowicz that is quite a sight to behold.
The gender politics of the production is interesting, and surprisingly unobtrusive to the narrative, given the choice to use an all-female cast. Apart from Annie Maynard doubling as both a constable and the journalist Feletti, all the roles are played as male rather than re-written into female roles, which a modernised approach to the play could feasibly have attempted. The underlying brutality and machismo of the police characters may have been deemed all too relevant to prevalent discussions of “toxic masculinity” in the current zeitgeist. Perhaps diluting that deadly testosterone into a more general statement about corruption and fascism would have been a disingenuous cop-out in the portrayal of such fundamentally patriarchal institutions.
Why then a period piece with an all-woman cast? It certainly fits in with the recurring idea of disguise and artifice, but unless it is simply a generalised subversive mockery-via-drag of the general abusive role of corrupt policemen, the thematic intention is not particularly clear. Puncturing the balloon of puffed-up male power via female caricature, perhaps? If so, the Maniac revealling herself at the end to have actually been a woman this whole time may simply be a nod of the hat to the production’s underlying feminist slant in using this casting approach.
Caroline Brazier and Bessie Holland form a terrific oil-and-water double act as the cringing Superintendent and brutish Inspector Pisani respectively, while Maynard and Susie Youssef get plenty of laughs as two haplessly thick Constables, with the former doubling as the whip-smart journalist. Forsyth’s aforementioned Bertozzo is played as a delightfully broad theatrical grotesque, and would probably steal the show if acting against anyone other than Amber McMahon as the Maniac.
Given some of her immensely memorable roles as a succession of endearing weirdos on Sydney stages over the years, her leading-lady turn as this classic trickster role seems, if anything, more restrained to begin with than one might expect. Like any good stage magician though, it’s all about misdirection and building anticipation for the payoff. McMahon is giving herself room to grow over the course of the show, with this supposedly unhinged master-manipulator becoming ever more outlandish as the action progresses. By the time she re-appears for the final phase of the play in her three-layers-deep disguise festooned with multiple false body parts, and making what is one of the most outrageously funny stage entrances in recent memory, you can feel that the rollercoaster of this performance has climbed to its apex, and is poised to plunge the audience into a freefall of nonstop hysterics.
Highly entertaining and not without something serious to say that still carries an uneasily biting message across different continents and almost half a century, this is a very strong production of a deservedly lauded work of subversive political satire, and a perfect star-vehicle for this strong cast’s extraordinary frontwoman.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
Accidental Death of an Anarchist
by Dario Fo | adaptation Francis Greenslade and Sarah Giles
Director Sarah Giles
Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 10 September – 27 October 2018