One of the most important provocations when creating a play is: why this, why now?
You’d think that would be a tough question to answer to play like Accidental death of an anarchist – a play written in 1970, about an anarchist railway worker, Giuseppe Pinelli, who died after falling from the window of the fourth floor of the police station where he was detained.
Pinelli had been wrongly arrested for a bombing in which he was not involved, questioned and ultimately killed and, although the police were strongly suspected of murdering him, an investigation absolved the officers.
Tom Basden’s version updated the play to the present day, but from this description the parallels are immediately clear. Deaths at the hands of the police remain all too frequent. Just last week, the Metropolitan Police shot and killed an unarmed man named Chris Kaba. Tragically, his murder is just the latest in a long string of deaths at the hands of the police.
As part of our production research, we spoke to a charity called Inquest. Inquest provides expertise in ‘state-related deaths’ and their statistics show there have been 1,833 deaths in police custody or following contact with police in England and Wales since 1990 20 of them are this year alone – an alarming statistic. We become accustomed to the violence perpetrated by those who are meant to serve and protect. Obviously, not much has changed since Dario Fo and Franca Rame started performing the piece over 50 years ago.
Interestingly, perhaps uniquely, Accidental death of an anarchist addresses this tragedy through farce. Fo was a populist. He wanted his work to have broad appeal, to be watchable and democratic, and to be seen by as many people as possible. Tom’s adaptation, just like the original, is incredibly funny. It’s packed with incisive jokes and hilarious physical comedy, all delivered by a talented cast of actors playing a wide variety of characters.
The ringleader of this is The Maniac, the central character originally played by Fo – an apparent “madman” who disrupts the police cover-up as he pokes holes in their official statements. The Maniac is an agent of chaos, descended from the commedia dell’arte harlequin. As he walks the police through their version of events – which in Fo’s original would have been taken directly from the officer’s testimony – their lies become more outlandish and illogical and he highlights their attempts preposterous to hide their guilt. The logic of the madman – that of the paradox – highlights the logic of the sane. Suddenly, the “fool” seems the most sane of the lot.
It is not very easy for us to find examples of cover-up and/or lack of accountability – be it Hillsborough or Orgeave, the shooting of Mark Duggan or the Spycops scandal. Indeed, the historical truth of these events and their unresolved nature sit alongside Pinelli’s story.
Thus, the public laughs at the satire, but at the same time realizes that they are laughing at real situations, real abuses of power, criminal, obscene and brutal events – all covered up by the state. And so the laugh becomes a grimace, a grimace of recognition that dies on their lips.
Hopefully that’s what sticks with an audience, the uncomfortable taste that we’re laughing at a little too close to home. Are we tired of the endless cycle of outrage and inquiry that characterizes our world? Are we even aware of power systems that dehumanize their subjects perpetuating the status quo? An acknowledgment of these uncomfortable truths lies in that laughter.
As Fo says, the play doesn’t allow you the catharsis of drama because “when you laugh, the sediment of anger stays inside you and can’t come out…”
Accidental Death of an Anarchist is at the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse, Sheffield from September 23 to October 15