Robert Delamere: 'We're living in an age of protest, and theatre is here to provoke people'

Does 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' still have something to say to us?
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The Independent Culture

Why revive Dario Fo's 1970's Italian polemic in 21st-century London? One of the reasons I chose to direct it relates to a trip to Portugal I made when I was 27. I had gone to direct Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was to be the production that re-opened the national theatre there. It was 1997, the right-wing government had just been voted out and there was a three-week gap before the left-wing government came in. During those weeks, people I was working with were being sacked, and I didn't know what was going on. I was losing my actors and it was impossible to carry on.

Why revive Dario Fo's 1970's Italian polemic in 21st-century London? One of the reasons I chose to direct it relates to a trip to Portugal I made when I was 27. I had gone to direct Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was to be the production that re-opened the national theatre there. It was 1997, the right-wing government had just been voted out and there was a three-week gap before the left-wing government came in. During those weeks, people I was working with were being sacked, and I didn't know what was going on. I was losing my actors and it was impossible to carry on.

It turned out that because the theatre was state-run, the incoming government was basically kamikaze-ing the place; and because they were all state employees, the artistic director just went round sacking people and not paying for things. It was a shocking abuse of power and made me face corruption head-on for the first time. I got the company together and we wrote a document outlining our demands to reinstate people and then presented it to the artistic director. He threatened everyone with the sack if we didn't get back to work immediately. So the next day we organised a press conference to let everyone know what was going on, and the whole of the Portuguese press turned up. There was a police cordon round the theatre, the artistic director threatened to sue me and I was advised to leave the country. Eventually the theatre was closed down, the artistic director was done for embezzling funds and a bill was put through parliament to change the theatre from state-controlled to the western model.

That incident is what made me form The Foundry [a production company promoting new writing], and it's what made me do all of [Irish Protestant playwright] Gary Mitchell's work. And it's one of the reasons why I wanted to do Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a play about institutional corruption. Written in 1970, it's based on the true case of the anarchist Guiseppe Pinelli, who fell to his death from a window at the police station where he was being questioned. The police said he jumped. Fo's black comedy plays it both ways.

In Italy in the Seventies there was a real sense of fear and the play addressed that. The problem with doing Fo's piece now, is, where is that sense of fear? The police are so good at PR themselves. When I was doing Force of Change at the Royal Court, I spent a day with the head of press at the RUC and he said extraordinary and awful things. When I asked him what's the solution to crime, he said a 48-hour media and civil rights black-out where we take out 600 people. It terrified me that in some cases that's what is happening behind the scenes.

But I do think we're entering an age of protest now. There's an underlying sense that our current situation isn't good enough, that it doesn't satisfy our democratic needs. I think that mood started when Bush came to power: that someone could construct an election victory in the common knowledge of Western society and not be challenged, as if democracy didn't matter. I think this spirit of protest is one of the things that Fo achieves with this play.

Our culture moves so fast now, that things of value take time, like human relationships, and indeed the process of thinking itself. This play allows people the opportunity to ask themselves a few pertinent questions, like what do you think of our social democracy?

I don't want to make it didactic and lecturing. The National Theatre production [of 1991] was accused of point scoring. I don't think point scoring is how you provoke people. I think you provoke them as Molière describes – "laughter should open the mind of the audience so that the nails of reason, can be hammered in" – with the idea of engaging people so that they can accept and consider ideas. We've attempted to make sure that no idea in it is party political. We don't want people coming along and thinking, "Bunch of bloody lefties!" As far as we can, we've tried to maintain the play's farcical energy and chaotic absurdity. During the process of Accidental Death... the maniac starts to appear sane and the police start to seem insane. Where does the real madness lie?

I've never been of the opinion that you persuade people of your political opinion. That was the 20th century. But I do believe theatre is the place to provoke people to question their beliefs. There's one particular speech at the end of the play – "We are in the shit up to our necks, which is why we're walking with our heads held high" – which really brings home the idea that unless you actually do something about what's going on, instead of just talking about it, you're as good as ignoring the problem. Indeed in some sense, you're directly responsible.

As Dario Fo put it, forgetfulness is the world's worst disease. He's saying, don't forget yourself, don't forget your opinions and most importantly, don't forget your conscience.

'Accidental Death of an Anarchist': Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020 7369 1732), previewing, opens Wed, to 19 April

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