With Silvio Berlusconi currently out ranking even some of Dario Fo’s most absurd political parodies (honestly you couldn’t make that stuff up) and British policing under attack for brutality, the timing for this revival of the Nobel Prize-winning Fo’s most famous satire, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, feels particularly apt. But after two hours of this particular production by Love & Madness, it’s hard not to feel disappointed at the missed opportunity.
The play is a farce based on the actual events surrounding the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, the railway worker and anarchist who was thrown, or as it was claimed ‘jumped’, out of a window in Milan in 1969. Resting squarely on the shoulders of a madman, Fo’s play concerns a schizophrenic who takes on a number of guises, running rings around the dim-witted police and the sanctimonious press. Fo delights in highlighting the corruption and injustice at the heart of the Italian legal system; Accidental Death is a whirlwind of a text that never gives the audience, or the victims of his wrath, a moment’s pause for breath.
The chaos is cleverly orchestrated, flicking between whipped-up moments of anarchy and quieter periods of subtle manipulation. The play has a wild stallion quality and it needs a strong guiding hand to fully utilise its power. In this instance, director Neil Sheppeck has been unable to take the reins and tame the run-away; the production is messy yet one-note; full of noise and fury yet signifying nothing.
Nicholas Kempsey, as the madman, gives a full-throttle, frenetic performance with a million little ticks and splutters. His energy is immense but it feels diabolically misplaced and he ricochets all over the place; he’s a charming actor but his forced mannerisms end up distancing him from the audience. These issues ripple through the rest of the performances, everything seems desperately forced and one-dimensional portrayals; these characters may well be buffoons but to succeed as parodies there needs to be some grain of truth present in the performances.
The shaky walls and borrowed filing cabinets of the set give about as much of a sense of a working police station as the wide of the mark stage punches resemble real violence. You just don’t believe in anything happening on the stage in front of you, and more importantly, you stop caring. And this lies at the heart of this production’s greatest tragedy. A staging of Accidental Death of an Anarchist in April 2011 could – should – have been a potent piece of theatrical commentary. As it is, the potential gold mine of the text is reduced to grit.