Can you tell us what Accidental Death of an Anarchist is about?
It's set in 1969 in Milan, Italy. It’s based around a real event, in which a bomb went off in a train station and the police arrested a guy (an alleged anarchist), interrogated him and then he fell to his death from a police station window. It very quickly became a national scandal.
The play begins about a week after this has happened, during an inquest. We watch the character played by Amber McMahon completely bamboozling these somewhat idiotic cops who are profoundly corrupt and totally to blame. He exposes their lies and their cover-ups and he does it through comedy.
It's just a joy to watch. It's like watching a fox let loose in a hen's house, if you really don't like the hens…
When did you first come across it?
Well, before I went to NIDA to study directing, I went to the University of Melbourne and did a double major in Italian and History. One of our classes was on Italian literature and theatre, studying everything in the original Italian. We did Dante’s Divine Comedy as well as quite a few things by Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame.
You’re doing a new adaptation of the play with Frances Greenslade, who’s probably best known from his regular work with Shaun Micallef. Have you worked with Frances before?
Yes and no. I met Frances on my first assistant director job after graduating from NIDA. We had the same sense of humour, we were interested in the same sorts of plays. And Francis is not only an incredibly funny actor and brilliant comedian but a remarkably talented French-speaker and scholar. We’ve been talking for years about plays to work on together – we've had a million coffees and emailed furiously for maybe 8 years. Finally, this felt like the perfect opportunity to make it happen.
Frances has this incredible ability to adapt the comedy so that it makes sense to an Australian ear without reducing it. It doesn't lose its Europeaness, but at the same time he makes it sing and he makes it funny and he makes sense of things that otherwise don't make sense and I think that the translation of something is the making or breaking of so many of these European comedies.
The playwright Dario Fo is a pretty amazing person – he won a Nobel prize, he has a background in clowning. What are the hallmarks of his work?
He manages to have you in tears laughing, and questioning the establishment, the status quo and power structures all at the same time. It's wild and irreverent and satirical.
His works are always anti-establishment and political. It's interesting that Accidental Death of an Anarchist is his most internationally successful and most performed play. Italy was, probably still is, a profoundly corrupt nation and he found a way to get inside that. But given everything that is happening politically around the world, it's funny to think that Italy in 1969 was ahead of its time with its incredible corruption!
You've decided to cast the play all-female. What did that stem from?
I 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, I wondered what it meant for a woman to play that role and what it meant to pursue that idea further with the whole cast. The more I went down the rabbit hole, the more logic I found and the more sense it made – it breathed new life into Fo’s play for me.
I was thinking about Saturday Night Live, and Melissa McCarthy's impersonation of Sean Spicer and Kate McKinnon's impersonation of Jeff Sessions. The thing about these impersonations is that the performer’s gender is neither provocation nor distraction. It's kind of beside the point. But it's not meaningless. Women have less power than men. And when the powerless mock the powerful, it's incredibly funny.
I grew up watching Fast Forward with Jane Turner, Magda Szubanski and Marg Downey – they are comic geniuses and were incredibly inspiring for me when I was young. So, it’s hugely exciting to have Jane and Sacha Horler in the cast too.
What do you think a night at Accidental Death of an Anarchist is going to be like for an audience?
I think it will be incredibly funny and raucous and kind of wild. It's entertaining and makes you think. You’ll want to talk about it endlessly. I think it does all the things great theatre should do.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, 10 Sep – 27 Oct 2018, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
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