Review by Harry Bower
When Dario Fo first wrote Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 1970, he might have hoped that it would be irrelevant fifty years later. It was, after all, written as a satirical critique of the Italian state at the time and designed to be a smart but damning social commentary. Tom Basden has taken that idea and run with it in his adaptation, the first version of the classic and hilarious farce to be performed in London in over twenty years; and it is well worth the wait.
The script is less a modern-gloss and more an almost complete rework with parts of the dialogue barely resembling the original, past and present writing coming together in an impressively seamless way. Pop culture references, thinly veiled reflections on current politics, and direct criticism of the police are plenty, and consistently hit hard with audible reactions from the audience. This is a show which knows exactly what it wants to say and then, sometimes literally, shouts it from the fourth floor window.
The story follows a ‘maniac’ who poses as a judge and pretends to help the police officers caught up in a scandal cover their tracks, but in doing so holds up a mirror and reveals their hypocrisy, lies, and the real meaning behind words. If it were written from scratch today, the narrative would be lauded as a masterpiece in comedy which breeds on anticipation and misdirect.
This production in particular is absurdly self-aware. “I’ve seen this before” – “I’m sure you have, it was first staged in 1970!”. That self-awareness allows for some great tongue-in-cheek audience interaction which makes the messages delivered about police brutality and the current state of the Metropolitan Police in London hit all the harder; the writer is speaking directly to you the audience without the protective barrier of that fourth wall.
The performances are all brilliant, but the most unforgettable comes from Daniel Rigby who is insert superlative here as The Maniac. Those who know the play will know that The Maniac is a legendary character with more lines than a George R. R. Martin novel and a zany delivery which is completely exhausting for the audience to witness, let alone for an actor to embody. Rigby will now forever represent this character in my mind. He is magnetic in his role, completely captivating at every turn, incorporating some inventive and original physical theatre into his routine reminiscent of someone like Rowan Atkinson. His is a masterful performance which leaves the audience simultaneously breathless and begging for more by the end of the show.
Those skilled performers are accompanied on their break-neck journey by a clever and inventive set design. The doll’s house cutaway set is at first glance basic but as the show develops it becomes clear that there is much more to it than meets the eye. Designer Anna Reid has really excelled here with seemingly static features working to surprise the audience later on. The lighting design is effectively simple in the most appropriate of ways, and the soundscape may go unnoticed, which is testament to its quality.
The direction required in the piece must have been both a complete joy and an uncontrollable beast to tackle. With the script so pacey and full of contradiction, director Daniel Raggett must have had a tough job to cut through the chaos. Their work is impeccable and compliments every other element of the production perfectly. There are some characters who don’t speak for pages of dialogue at a time but never feel like they are irrelevant. Prop use is very effective and the blocking gives a great view wherever you’re sat in the auditorium.
It might be appropriate to question some of the messaging in this version of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. When a show directly addresses the killings of unarmed black men by police in the city you are watching it in and makes relatively unchallenged claims about the numbers of people afflicted by police brutality or abuse of power, it is right that the audience should feel shocked, even angry. It is also right that they should leave the theatre understanding these statements are being delivered in a heightened artistic environment and that outrage should come hand in hand with learning and research. It is brilliant therefore to see this production partner with INQUEST, an independent charity providing expertise on state-related deaths and their investigations. The sad truth is that none of what is propagated in this production is false. This is a script based on the writings of fifty years ago and it is as painfully relevant right now and is was back then. Is it one bad apple, or a bad tree? As all great art does, it asks questions rather than profess to have the answers. It punches up, and never down.
The least subtle show in London is a complete laugh riot with a not altogether surprising but sometimes confronting politically charged agenda. The performances here are award-worthy and compliment a magnificent script which is intelligent, witty, and adapted for 2023 with panache. Accidental Death of an Anarchist might have been written over five decades ago, but if creative people keep breathing new life into it like in this production, and we keep failing to learn from our mistakes, it might have another five decades to go yet. A must watch.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist plays at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until Saturday 08 April 2023. For more information or to buy tickets visit: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/accidental-death-of-an-anarchist/
Photos by Helen Murray