Theatre Review: The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo and Franca Rame

By Searchlight Team

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo and Franca Rame.

Playing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London. Until 9 September 2023

Andy Bell enjoys a hilarious new revival of a classic of political farce that does full justice to the comic heart of the original piece

Transposed to London Daniel Rigby as The Maniac (all images), with (centre image) Ro Kumar as Agent Joseph (top), Tom Andrews as Detective Daisy (right) and Mark Hadfield as Inspector Burton (Photos: Accidental Death of an Anarchist/Facebook)

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist is a play that arose from events in December 1969, when Italian fascists bombed the Piazza Fontana in Milan, killing 17 people and injuring 88. It was the deadliest of several bombs planted that day by the group Ordine Nuovo (New Order) as part of the far right’s ‘Strategy of tension’, designed to provoke a military takeover of the country.

For that strategy to work, the bombing – and others like it – had to be blamed on the left and, sure enough, the police investigation initially focused almost entirely on the city’s anarchists. Dozens were arrested. One, Giuseppe Pinelli, a railway worker, was taken to police headquarters and died after falling from a fourth-floor window while being interrogated. The police claimed he had committed suicide, launching himself through the window, seized by a ‘raptus’.

But the official police account was riddled with absurd inconsistencies and contradictions, to put it generously, and inspired Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame to write this play, which premiered in 1970. They picked up the absurdity of the official version and ran with it, turning tragedy into farce, with a fast, furious wisecracking plot dissecting the police account to hilarious effect.

But the fascists took revenge: three years later, it is believed at the instigation of the police, fascists kidnapped, raped and tortured Rame before dumping her in a park. But she survived and was again campaigning against the fascists only weeks later.

The play has been performed and revived countless times, in many countries and languages. This new production does full justice to the comic heart of the original piece and retains its breathless, rapid-fire humour. Tom Basden’s adapted script fizzes and crackles, while Daniel Rigby’s maniacal central performance (as literally, The Maniac) is wonderful.

However, in the process of transposing the story from Italy 50 years ago to modern London the core issue has, perhaps inevitably, become a wider concern with deaths in police custody and, while the bombing that formed the backdrop to events in the police station is mentioned, its fascist authorship is sadly lost.

All the same, this rather special production is not to be missed. It is a riotous tour de force that reminds us that, even dealing with such dark and tragic subjects as deaths in custody, humour – even farce – can be an extraordinarily powerful tool in exposing the truth.