Lina Nicolli recalls a memorable preformance by Dario Fo, the radical Italian theatre maker and Nobel prize-winning playwright, who died last month. His excoriating farces, such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, satirised the corruption of the Italian state.
When an unassuming man walked onto the bare stage, I was ready for the kind of worthy evening that you know is probably doing you good, but is not exactly fun — a bit like bran for breakfast.
But as soon as Dario Fo started talking, gesticulating, moving around, totally in control of the connection he was making with his audience, it was obvious that I was very wrong. Eating out of the palm of his hand doesn’t even begin to capture it.
I imagine that for any performer having your audience laugh in relay must be fairly tricky. Half the audience understands and laughs, the other half waits for the translation and laughs.
In the middle of this chaos, Fo interrupts his one-man (plus translator) show and starts to conduct us (full orchestral pose) to get us to laugh in time…and we did, eventually, sort of, because by that point everyone had cracked up — we felt we were all in on the joke.
As I recall, that much laughter and warmth and hope were not on offer for the left in many places in Britain in 1983.
It is probably historically inaccurate to remember the whole year as a tidal wave of flag-waving, Falklands-fuelled jingoism and numb disbelief at Thatcher’s re-election on the back of her tank-riding “victory”. But memory is a weird thing and the flashes of light that Dario Fo brought to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith that dark evening stick in my mind as a rare moment of belly laughter that year.
Trying to describe Fo’s performance to someone who hasn’t seen it is tricky. “Well, he does this brilliant skit where he’s medieval pope Boniface VIII getting dressed for a big occasion and threatening his servants that he’ll nail their tongues to the door…”
You can almost hear the yoghurt being woven.
But you’d be wrong. Because the pope is a ruthless, vain bully, a powerful, flawed buffoon, just like the kind you might find managing an office or call centre — or running for president even. And the invisible servants have a life and personality of their own, conjured out of Fo/Boniface’s abuse and his reaction to their small acts of resistance. You can feel their hostility towards their tormentor because you’ve seen it and felt it a thousand times.
I never saw Fo perform in one of his more famous plays, but I have enjoyed some brilliant versions over the years. I’ve also seen some toe-curlingly bad productions that buried the tragedy at the heart of the farce in stage business — very clever but gutless. And it was in fact the gut that was centre stage in what was for me the most stunning and memorable part of his performance that evening, entitled “The Hunger of Zanni”.
According to Fo, swelling with mock regional pride, it was Northern Italy that invented capitalism. By inventing banking in the 1100s it helped create the system that made capitalism possible, giving birth to global colonisation and amassing unprecedented wealth for the few.
The Americas, he reminds us, were named after a Florentine banker, not Columbus. And that is what makes Zanni, the archetypal North Italian peasant, so important, because he shows us the crippling hunger that the bankers left in their wake. Zanni is about a man so consumed by hunger that he dreams of eating his own body parts, his eyes, his ears, his gut… Then he sees the audience and fantasises about eating them.
His hunger is all he can feel and think about. He hallucinates about being in a kitchen preparing a feast (of the Italian dish polenta, naturally). He’s in despair and then finally he strikes lucky — he catches a fly and, with great relish and care, eats this fabulous meal.
Watch the video on YouTube if you can. You don’t need to understand Italian (he speaks in gibberish anyway). The language of a starving man as he struggles to cling to hope and dignity is one that, at some level, we can all understand.
And with Fo you always knew that Zanni’s fierce humanity would shine out.