Corruption, mass scandal and police-sponsored terrorism are not new problems. In 1970, Italian absurdist Dario Fo wrote Accidental Death of Anarchist to expose these very machinations to the audience of his native Italy. Amid a neo-fascist political landscape, an anarchist died in police custody for a bombing – of which he was assuredly innocent, and Fo’s play takes those events and blows them up (pun intended) for the stage. He exaggerates the crime with absurdist tropes, but the details of the events in his play bear strong links to the case that inspired it. He wrote to challenge the party line and encourage audiences to examine the information they are fed by those in authority – and by a biased media.
In this production, reinvigorated for full farce in an adaptation by Francis Greenslade and Sarah Giles for Sydney Theatre Company, director Giles helms an all-female cast in committed male drag (journalist Maria Feletti, played here by the sharp Annie Maynard, remains a woman). This grotesquerie of performative masculinity, and its relationship with superstructures of power in fraught contemporary democracies, works a treat; the real strength of this production is in these performances.
Amber McMahon is the ‘maniac’ at the heart of the play who infiltrates a Milan police station where an anarchist has died after ‘falling’ out of a window. He assumes the role of a judge sent to investigate the death, and shenanigans – along with a strong dose of anti-fascist revenge – ensue.
McMahon is sensational as the central figure of the show, sly and charming as she outwits the coterie of cops around her. Those cops are, in this production, an embarrassment of riches: Julie Forsyth’s committed, hapless drag as Inspector Bertozzo is emotionally honest and desperately funny; Susie Youssef’s dreamy, inept constable has a surprisingly sweet aura; Caroline Brazier’s superintendent is every polished, well-off man who has advanced farther than his limited abilities should ever allow; and Bessie Holland is a grunt in human form as Inspector Pisani. Giles places comedy beats first in this play and in the world she has created, timing is everything – on opening night, the laughter spurred on by the pleasure of a perfectly-landed punchline erupted over and over, like waves.
Jonathon Oxlade’s police station set is gently absurd with neat curves, bureaucratic pastels and a pop-up book skyline outside the all-important window (large and perfect for defenestration). Stefan Gregory’s score and sound is cartoon-bright, and Trent Suidgeest’s lights are just as playful.
The production doesn’t end the way you might expect, even if you’re familiar with Fo’s play. Greenslade and Giles’ script introduces a new, still ambiguous but less confronting ending which fits in neatly with this adaptation’s overall ethos of comedy over commentary. The oppression and ineptitude of police and the courts is treated as old, popularly understood news, and the play doesn’t really work to challenge our cynicism and complacency. Instead, it feels more like an ally who tells us that sometimes we’re allowed to laugh instead of cry; that we can’t be outraged all the time without letting off some steam and raising some theatrical hell. It’s irreverent, and this cast of exceptional women taking on male buffoonery is worth the price of admission alone.