On the night of the 15th December 1969, a man fell to his death from the fourth floor of the police headquarters in Milan. The victim, Giuseppe Pinelli, was an anarchist railway worker who had been detained in the wake of the bombing that had targeted the National Agrarian Bank three days earlier. Accidental Death of An Anarchist, Dario Fo’s ruthlessly satirical reconstruction of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Pinelli’s death, was an ambitious undertaking for the Cambridge Italian Society’s fifth annual Italian-language production, but despite the many challenges it posed, both cast and crew produced a show that was as technically impressive as it was entertaining.
Director Victor Rees’ attention to detail was evident from the first moments of the production; the chorus’ rendition of Bella ciao (the anthem of the Italian anti-fascist resistance) served as a reminder of the revolutionary moment in which the play’s events take place and as a nod to Fo’s own political commitments, and whilst the reference might have been lost on the non-Italian speakers in the audience, their confusion was soon abated by the appearance of subtitles above the central stage. Judging by the widespread laughter throughout the show, the subtitles were largely successful in bridging the language barrier – a considerable achievement for a play so reliant on sharp, quick-witted exchanges.
The choice to have Helena Brann play her role (the Constable) in English, only to have her lines degenerate into a comical ‘Itanglish’ by the end of the play provided a perfect counterpoint to the increasing sense of confusion escalated by the Superintendent (Alessandro Celona) and Inspector’s (Imane Bou-Saboune) desperate attempts to absolve themselves from a crime they were clearly complicit in. Brann’s code-switching also served as a subtle reflexive touch, a self-awareness that helped highlight the quality with which Harry Orwell interpreted his role as Bertozzo as a non-native speaker of Italian.
The cast’s excellent individual efforts were brought together by the show’s unquestionable star; Claudia Antolini’s performance as the Maniac enthralled the audience from the opening scene, in which her character introduces himself as a ‘histriomaniac’, (a compulsion to impersonate other people) to the closing moments of the play, where one is left in awe of the madman’s elaborate plan to coax a confession from the policemen. Whilst offering a good deal of personal quirks, Antolini’s performance was nonetheless faithful to the spirit of the giullare (court jester) that inspired so many of Fo’s characters. Irreverent and effortlessly sharp, her rendition kept us thoroughly entertained, though never at the expense of her character’s implicitly subversive role in the narrative.
Through its nuance and precision Accidental Death of An Anarchist surpassed the limits of what I thought could be achieved by a foreign-language play in Cambridge. I am left hoping that the Italian Society (and other expatriate communities) will continue collaborating with the theatre scene in order to build on their already notable successes.