Accidental Death of an Anarchist
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Fo’s formidable female cast

As we were leaving the theatre, my partner asked me why the producers had decided on an all-female cast. My answer was, because they could, because it’s time, because it’s a play that can be played equally well by men and women. Gender really plays no part. Many other plays could use the same conceit.

The program revealed director Sarah Giles merely thought: “Who would I get to play the main role? And my mind went to Amber McMahon. Not because she is a woman, but because she is the best actor for the role. She’s this perfect, demented, brilliantly talented clown, who has depth and truth and a boisterousness that’s extraordinary.” So that’s that.

Giles went on to say it just made sense to her, and breathed new life into Dario Fo’s play. And from the audience point of view, given their positive reaction, the play transposed well to a cast of women.

Fo’s farcical political satire is as pertinent now as it was in 1970 when it was written, based on a real event in Milan in 1969. Today, with the backdrop of “fake news” the play’s ridiculousness is again reflecting the politics of the time.

The play’s protagonist is the Madman who is being charged with impersonating others. The Madman starts to drive police officers crazy and they let him go. However, when he returns to retrieve his paperwork, he finds that there is to be an investigation about the defenestration of an Anarchist, falsely accused of planting a bomb. The Madman starts to inveigle himself into the station and impersonates a judge investigating the incident. The action centres on the absurdities, and the Madman makes all those implicated confess their guilt through farce. It’s an entertaining spectacle with a serious message.

Amber McMahon plays the role of the Madman a little bit Marx Brothers, a little bit John Cleese, and a little bit Johnny Depp. Her comedic talent was last on show in Sydney Theatre Company’s Popular Mechanicals – a Shakespearean romp. Holding court as the lead in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, she embraces her slapstick skills and takes us on a wild ride. She was ably assisted by Julie Forsyth as Bertozzo and Bessie Holland as Pissani. The first sight of Forsyth brought guffaws from the front rows. The scene where Bertozzo recognises and tries to disclose the identity of the Madman is perhaps the best Marxian scene (Brothers, not Karl). Holland was a cross between Bessie Bunter and Fat Bastard (from Austin Powers) and also provided a brilliant visual and active slapstick turn.

I first saw the play at the Footbridge Theatre in 1992, when Mick Molloy was the Madman. Frances Greenslade, who adapted this version, was also in the 1992 Robin Archer directed version.

It’s a serious play with real message – but it’s also very, very funny. I’ve seen it played more heavy handed and threatening, and perhaps because it was women directed by a woman, this production had a lighter touch. It was a fresh way to play it, but for me a shade more gravitas would have made it perfect.

Want to see the show? Check out more information here.