Comedian, Playwright, Director, Performer, Activist, Painter, Designer, Theatre-maker
Born March 24 1926 ; died October 13 2016
Dario Fo, who has died aged ninety following a lung-based illness that saw him hospitalised two weeks ago, was a radical maestro who understood the power of laughter beyond polemic. The news of his passing comes in the midst of Dancing With Colours, Whipping With Words, a month-long celebration of the Nobel Prize winning author of now classic works such as Accidental Death of An Anarchist and Mistero Buffo, which is currently ongoing in Edinburgh. Fo himself, whose works have been heard in more than thirty languages, was due to travel to Scotland to take part in an onstage conversation at the Royal Lyceum Theatre with his biographer, translator and greatest champion, Joe Farrell.
It was Farrell's rollicking versions of Fo's key works that brought them to Scots audiences in a series of productions produced by Borderline Theatre Company and others that combined Commedia d'el Arte styled buffoonery with a ferocious lampooning of an often brutal political establishment, and which throughout the 1980s seemed to chime with a climate of unrest. This saw the English language title of Fo's play, Can't Pay? Won't Pay! adopted as a rallying cry by the anti Poll Tax Movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s right up until the imposition of the hated tax brought down UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher before it was eventually abolished. With austerity culture fostering a new wave of right wing populism and political discourse reduced to playground taunts, Fo's sense of the ridiculous is needed now more than ever before.
Dario Fo Fo was the eldest of three children born in Lombardy's Province of Varese to a railway station master father and a peasant mother. While his mother wrote a book about the local area, Fo's father was both a socialist and an enthusiastic amateur actor. Fo learned storytelling from his maternal grandfather.
In 1940, Fo moved to Milan to study, but was conscripted into Mussolini's army, which he used as a disguise to help his father smuggle refugees to Switzerland. After the war, Fo began to study architecture, but after a breakdown began to paint and perform with small theatres. In 1950 Fo joined a pioneering variety show before meeting Franca Rame, the actress and writer who would become his romantic partner and his most important artistic collaborator and comrade right up until her death in 2013.
The couple worked in film, TV and variety before the upheavals in France during May 1968 saw them moved out of the mainstream to using farce and roughcast techniques plundered from mediaeval theatre to satirise the establishment. In a country where church and state held so much sway, Fo and Rame became a crucial voice of dissent even as it laughed at the object of its ire.
The first sighting of Fo's work in the UK came with a version of Accidental Death of An Anarchist, a madcap farce adapted by Gavin Richards for his Belt and Braces company after Richards had spent stints with both 7:84 and Ken Campbell's Roadshow. Richards' productionn ran on the West End, and, in Thatcher's Britain, productions of Fo's work soon seemed to be everywhere.
Scotland's variety tradition seemed to be a kindred spirit of Fo's aesthetic, with Borderline's productions of Trumpets and Raspberries, Can't Pay? Won't Pay! and Mistero Buffo starring Robbie Coltrane tapping into the maestro's irreverent ribaldry.
Italy has always been politically volatile, and Fo and Rame suffered first hand from the forces of oppression. Following controversy over a sketch about the working conditions of construction workers, Fo and Rame were banned from Italian state television for fourteen years. In 1973, Rame was kidnapped by fascists, allegedly at the behest of establishment figures, and was tortured and raped while in captivity. Several years later, and with Fo readmitted to the TV fold, Mistero Buffo was condemned by the Vatican as 'the most blasphemous show in the history of television.'
More recently, Fo was sued by Italian senator Marcello Dell'Uttri regarding references to him in his 2003 play, The Two-Headed Anomaly. At the time, Dell'Uttri was on trial for money laundering. The play also poked fun at the shortness of then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose fictional version was strapped to a chair and given electric shock treatment by Fo. It imagined too Vladimir Putin being shot dead by Chechen rebels while visiting Berlusconi's luxury villa, with the play's title refering to the subsequent transplanting of Putin's brain into Berlusconi's head.
Farrell's definitive biography, Dario Fo & Franca Rame – Harlequins of the Revolution, first published in 2001, is ripe for an update, particularly in light of this month's activity. Last week's Edinburgh performance of Fo's 2009 piece, Francis the Holy Jester, by his long-term collaborator Mario Pirovano, was a masterclass in the maestro's work.
Fo's passing comes at a time when a new generation of theatre-makers are engaging with politics in a way that hasn't been seen so explicitly since the days of Fo's fellow travellers in Scotland, 7:84, Wildcat and Borderline, fused popular artforms and an oppositionist stance in a localised way that mirrored Fo's work. Work by some of these younger artists can be seen at Dancing With Colours, Whipping With Words, and the likes of Mark Thomas and Julia Taudevin can now be seen as Fo's torch-bearers.
It is to them Fo was speaking in his last interview, given to the Herald to tie in with the festival, and published just last week as he contemplated the state of a world in which politicians continue to brutalise opposition even as they appear to be beyond parody.
“There are times when society is not sure what is happening,” Fo said. “People in general may think there is nothing we can do about it, so even when an artist or a writer feels that people aren't behind them because they don't understand what is happening, it is important to continue using satire or irony. It is important to keep addressing people,” said the holiest jester of all, “so they can find the right way to go.”
The Herald, October 14th 2016