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Obituary: Dario Fo

Playwright and actor Dario Fo, 90

A jester with a caustically comical view of politics, Dario Fo was a prolific playwright whose work confronted inequality, injustice, corruption, crime and religious cant through the filter of farce.

His forthrightness saw him denounced by the Vatican, banned from television in his native Italy, regularly censored and prevented from entering the United States. It also provoked personal abuse and often physically violent attacks from opponents of his unabashedly communist analysis of the world. In 1973 his wife and collaborator Franca Rame was kidnapped, raped and beaten by right-wing extremists.

The Rape, one of the tripartite compendium Feminine Singular co-written by Fo and Rame, later defiantly staged the experience and was seen at Manchester’s Contact Theatre in 1989.

Of his more than 80 plays, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! were hugely popular hits and continue to be regularly revived. Both were seen in the West End during the 1980s when the regional theatre that hadn’t staged them was the glaring exception to the rule.

Mistero Buffo – his epic one-man show retelling Biblical stories from the perspective of the powerless, its six-hour playing time staged over three nights at London’s then newly reopened Riverside Studios in 1983 – is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Fo made his first appearance in The Stage in March 1964 when a review of an Italian production of a now forgotten play described his style as “a cross between Brian Rix and Peter Ustinov”. Variously added to that blend were elements of Brechtian agit-prop, Moliere farce, Keystone Cops slapstick, the brashness of the medieval troubadour, the irreverence of Joe Orton and the brute directness of the tabloid newspaper headline. Avowedly anti-establishment in tone, it proved a provocatively combustible and popular mix.

Although Fo’s play The Seventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Steal a Bit Less had been seen at London’s Old Vic courtesy of the Belgian National Theatre in 1971, it wasn’t until the end of the decade before Fo broke through into wider recognition in the UK.

Productions of Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! at London’s Half Moon Theatre in 1978 and Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Belt and Braces in 1979 – both of which transferred to the West End, respectively at the Criterion and Wyndham’s theatres – led to Fo’s emergence as the spokesman for a generation newly politicised by the Winter of Discontent and the dawn of the Thatcher era.

Where Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!, an exploration of the domestic life of a working-class Milanese family, demonstrated Fo’s empathy with the private lives of the dispossessed, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a stinging satire about the death of a railway worker while under police interrogation in Milan, engaged head on with affairs in the public domain. Both plays set the tone for a body of work accented by farce in which confrontational topicality and subversive politics went hand in hand.

The influence of Rame came to the fore in Female Parts, a trilogy of short plays that connected Fo’s work to arguments drawn from feminism. This was staged in Italian at the Riverside Studios in 1982.

The following year, Fo himself performed his magnum opus, Mistero Buffo, at the same west London venue, now newly refurbished. When the play had been broadcast in Italy in 1977, the Vatican denounced it as “the most blasphemous show in the history of television”.

In the UK, Fo’s work was championed by a raft of politically motivated companies including Belt and Braces, Monstrous Regiment and the Scottish touring company Borderline, whose director Morag Fullarton was an articulate champion of Fo’s work. Her 1990 revival of Mistero Buffo starred Robbie Coltrane, who was also seen in its BBC television adaptation.

Fo also played well in the higher echelons of the theatrical establishment. Accidental Death of an Anarchist was revived by the National Theatre in 1991. The same year, Jude Kelly’s production of his knockabout farce about a paranoid pope radicalised by a famous psychiatrist, The Pope and the Witch, transferred from the West Yorkshire Playhouse to the Comedy Theatre (now Harold Pinter) in the commercial heart of British theatre, the West End.

At the Pleasance Theatre in 1994, Stephen Stenning’s Abducting Diana, an adaptation of Fo’s The Kidnapping of Francesca (originally written in 1986) courted controversy in its depiction of a ruthless establishment heroine by alluding to the then wife of Prince Charles and attacking all-powerful press barons.

Performed by Frances de la Tour at a north London school in 2005, Peace Mom, a monologue about a mother whose son had been killed fighting in Iraq, showed Fo as engaged with contemporary events as ever.

He was also tirelessly active as a performer – hosting workshops for theatre workers – in political activism and as a director of opera. He published his first novel, The Pope’s Daughter, a portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, in 2015.

Dario Fo was born in Sangiano, northern Italy to an amateur actor-father on March 24, 1926. He studied art and architecture before enjoying early success as a satirist on Italian radio and television. Awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1997, he was praised for emulating “the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. He died on October 13, aged 90.

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