I really thought I’d seen this play in real life, back in the long ago. I was an early teenager, and perhaps at the age at last where I could be taken to the theatre to see a play and actually pay attention without needing to be bribed with sweets.
Perhaps my sister saw it on an overseas trip to London – I checked, it was on stage in 1980 – and came back and told us about it.
But the version I remember clearly, and even have a memory of writing about it in my teenage diary, was a recorded-for-TV version.
I remember it was funny, slapstick funny in parts, but also with a serious political satirical message wrapped up amongst the laughs. Maybe this was my first encounter with absurdism or satire. But I remember also the play had the best name…
Accidental Death of an Anarchist
It was written by Italian, Dario Fo, in response to real events. In 1969, a train driver fell from a fourth floor window while being interrogated by the police. It was deemed to be an accident death.
In view of the many concerns about London’s Metropolitan police force (sexism, racism, homophobia – and that’s just amongst the staff before we start on the many crimes perpetrated by officers against the general public that extend from causal violence and sexual assault up to the rape and murder of Sarah Everard ) perhaps that was why Tom Basden saw this as an opportune time to revisit this play.
The character names have been anglicised from their original Italian, and the script that I remembered has been updated, to include references to recent horrors instigated by the police.
The plot is simple – The Maniac, arrested on some unrelated charge, finds himself unguarded in a police station and decides to achieve a lifetime ambition to masquerade as a judge – the judge who is investigating the titular accidental death of an anarchist. The superintendent, the detective and the constable who questioned the train driver / anarchist are put through their paces by the Maniac, as he quizzes them about the actual events of that night, pointing out the differences in their first and their second (“revised…. I mean correctly remembered”) versions of events, pretending to be on their side while also ridiculing their excuses and explanations, ending the first act by teaching them the Italian anti-facist anthem, “Bella Ciao”.
In the original version (from what I remember) the journalist who arrives in the second act to interview the police is genuinely trying to find out the truth, and quizzing the police on the facts while The Maniac (further disguised) seems determined to disrupt proceedings. In this version, the journalist is part of the cover up, not so interested in the truth as in filing her story and heading off to the countryside for the weekend. The Maniac points out the issues with her profession as well, that journalists are no longer guardians of the truth but in bed with politicians and the police, citing recent cases of phone hacking.
Daniel Rigby delivers his performance as the Maniac with fierce energy and humour, his performance impressive for the sheer volume of text he delivers, often at a such a speed the humour of the joke only catches you a few seconds later.
The humour now, as when the play was written, cleverly draws attention to the horror of police brutality that is sitting in plain sight. There have been, we are informed by a graphic at the end of the play, 1857 deaths in police custody since 1990. I did the calculations: that’s 4-5 deaths every month, or one person every week. Is this acceptable? Less than 1% of these have resulted in any kind of conviction. This is the sting the audience takes away with them.