After a half a year of hibernation, SUDS awoke from its slumber last night with Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist – a politically-charged romp through police repression, anarcho-communist theory, and prosthetic-limb gags. Although this might sound odd, it’s in this very contradiction that the message of Fo’s play shines through.
Inspired by the defenestration of an innocent anarchist from the fourth floor of Milan’s police headquarters at the height of Italy’s violent Years of Lead, Fo’s play – adapted for SUDS by Sam Hill-Wade and Tilda Wilkinson-Finch – takes a slapstick handle to institutional corruption and state violence.
SUDS’ performance succeeds, for the most part, in balancing the slapstick and the serious, taking the viewer on a highly entertaining and impressively polished lark, with strong performances from all cast members keeping the sold-out crowd amused and interested for the entirety of its two hour run time.
Set in a cramped police headquarters, set designers Bella Wellstead and Tom Hennessey (along with assistant Rachel Hui) should be congratulated for constructing a space that not only immersed the audience in its Italianate environs, but provided ample opportunity for interaction. There was always something to see in the periphery, whether it be Jim Bradshaw (Superintendent) grinding a cabanossi stick through a pasta press as the farce proceeded in the foreground, or Danial Yazdani (Constable) cowering constantly behind coat racks, curtains, and filing cabinets.
The desk took centre stage, defining the seat of power, giving all three maniacs (a significant innovation by Hill-Wade and Wilkinson-Finch) a chance to assert their dominance over the scene: lounging in the high backed chair, or doing callisthenics on the bureau. The mechanical rolling background (used to signify shifts between floors of the police HQ) was a clever innovation.
Costumes from Zara Zadro and Kimmi Tonkin elevated the farce to new heights. Dressing the police officers in disco pirate chic only added to their pompous buffoonery, laying bare the incompetence behind the aesthetic facade of uniform. For example, Inspector Pissani’s (Pat Fuccilli) floral blouse, gleaming tight white pants and rosary bead carabiner exposed him as a lecherous liar, setting up the character well.
Hill-Wade and Wilkinson-Finch made a number of departures from Fo’s original script, some being more successful than others. The decision to cast three Maniacs instead of the traditional one was a clever and considered innovation, allowing the trio’s transmogrifying deception to come to the fore. The interchange between Maniacs #1, #2 and #3 was smooth, and allowed each performer to give a unique bent to the character.
Kimmi Tonkin’s Maniac #1 started and stole the show, electrifying the audience with a rollicking and raving display, which more than lived up to the ‘Maniac’ job description. Treating the stage as her playground, Tonkin’s street urchin shtick set up the show for success: the laughs rolled in (the foot-as-phone gag was an unusual highlight), but it was the confident commanding of stage movement which most impressed. Indeed, it was the opening scene and Tonkin’s interactions with Adele Beaumont’s (Bertozzo) harangued and paranoid straight-man foil which was the high-point of the show.
Rose Fitz’s Maniac #2 offered a delightful counterpart to Tonkin’s energetic act. Impersonating a high court judge, Fitz’s performance was reminiscent of Claire Foy’s pinched delivery in The Crown. Fitz’s maniac used her time on stage to unravel the Matryoshka dolls of official and unofficial police timelines. Delivering inquisitive charm, Fitz’s maniac was the rational rapier of activist inquiry, piercing the police’s deception and incompetence with vim and vigour.
Fitz’s introduction came alongside that of the cast of three bumbling cops, whose sheer incompetence deliberately obscured their violence and murderousness. Pat Fuccilli (Inspector Pissani) was shiveringly snivelling when the script called for cowardice, and equally ruthless when it didn’t. With a scheming hunch, Fucilli’s deliberate performance added a necessary layer of slime and sleaze to the fascist inspector. Jim Bradshaw (Superintendent) provided bovver-boy humour, and impressed with his talents as an accordionist, while Danial Yazdani (Constable) lurked in the background. Too quiet in the first half, Yazdani shone when given space to work.
Tom Hetherington-Welsh (Maniac #3) and Danny Cabubas (the journalist Felletti) played their parts well, though were often obscured by a crowded stage. Unfortunately for such a political play, the theoretical musings of Maniac #3 were drowned out by the farcical chase scene proceeding in the background. This confusing set-up may have been deliberate – Fo railed against scandal’s ability to obscure the truth – but such a choice was not clear to the audience.
If there was a failing in Death of an Anarchist, it was the tendency to innovate on Fo’s script without making decisive choices. Swapping in references to Watergate and Pinochet from beyond the play’s original context added little, and necessitated clunky meta asides: Pissani’s “this is an unheard of distortion of the author’s meaning” was unfortunately apt in the moment. However, where the changes were major – such as the decision to cast three maniacs – they succeeded entirely.
Further, while the farcical element shone strongly in the first half, some of the slapstick humour came to feel a little forced as the play progressed. One particular gag involving a prosthetic hand was a little…wooden.
One recommendation would be to do a little background reading into the accidental death of an anarchist on which the play is based. Some knowledge of the context of the play is helpful in illuminating its political arguments, and makes some references clear, especially with regards to the journalist – and increases its relevance to students.
Despite these minor criticisms, Death of an Anarchist was a highly enjoyable, well-performed and well-developed production. These reviewers chuckled and chortled through two full hours of anarcho-communist student theatre – it’s safe to say there was nothing accidental about this show’s success.