Tuesday Book: The elusive charm of Mr Fo

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DARIO FO is something of a theatre legend in this country. Whether you call him a stand-up satirist, a radical activist or "the people's court jester", he symbolises the fond belief that humour can be subversive and that the simple joys of laughter can drown out the pompous bureaucrat- speak of the rich and powerful.

But when you talk to left-wing Italians, a different, much more sceptical, picture emerges. The difference may be due to their greater exposure to his talents. While Fo's reputation in Britain rests mainly on long West End runs, in the early 1980s, of Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can't Pay? Won't Pay!, along with some productions of Mistero Buffo (Comic Mysteries), Italians have been entertained by his prodigious output for more than four decades.

For example, Fo has performed his solo piece celebre, Mistero Buffo, all over the world for more than 30 years. In Italy, there have been more than 1,000 performances. Live audiences for this show alone reached a staggering million and a half. In total, he has written, directed and acted in more than 70 plays, as well as numerous television sketches and radio pieces. These vary from farces to agit-prop musicals, from political documentaries to clown shows. With his partner and collaborator, Franca Rame, he has performed to suits in boulevard theatres, striking workers, in front of mass demonstrations and in huge auditoriums.

During the early years, the couple were hounded by the authorities. They quit Canzonissima, the television show which hosted their controversial sketches, after censorship problems in 1962. Frequently attacked by reactionaries and stuffed shirts, Fo and Rame have survived 250 lawsuits, brief imprisonment and physical assaults. The Vatican described the 1977 television version of Mistero Buffo as "the most blasphemous show in television history". Twenty years later, Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming that paradoxical figure, the "serious" buffoon, the "literary" comic.

But while being a "Foista" in Britain conjures up a vision of playful comedy and a genuine people's theatre, Italians tend to see him as just a bit old-hat, even naff. There, he seems to appeal mainly to those who like to take their radicalism with a hefty dose of tradition. His Mistero Buffo does not advocate atheism, but a primitive, class-conscious Christianity. And compared to the work of, say, Living Theatre or Eugenio Barba, his style is downright conservative.

As Tony Mitchell shows, in this updated and expanded version of his classic 1984 account of Fo's work, the revolutionary playwright is indeed a man of tradition. The first half of the book is partly biographical, partly a play-by-play account of Fo's major works. In each case, Mitchell relates his performances to the political background in Italy and to the myriad theatrical traditions on which Fo has drawn. Mistero Buffo, for example, used dramatic devices such as grammelot - a totally invented onomatopoeic language - whose origins go back to commedia dell'arte.

In general, Fo's work is seen as inseparable from the "traditions of popular performance", from the Atella farces of ancient Rome to the medieval giullari or jongleurs. Mixed in are burlesque, storytelling and popular song, plus the Marxist tradition of Brechtian devices, "living newspaper" techniques and didactic monologues.

But although Mitchell's account of the plays is fascinating in its detailed analysis of these traditions, he underplays the extent to which Fo reinvented them in his own image. A consummate performer, Fo has always been a magpie, nicking and adapting from theatre history and recasting tradition to suit himself. This more opportunistic, personal and ephemeral aspect of his craft tends to get lost in Mitchell's account.

Nor does the book give enough of an idea of what Fo is like as a person. The biographical details are sketchy - born in Lombardy in 1926, his father a socialist stationmaster who fought in the Resistance - and there's nothing that explains Fo's enormous energy, nor his larger-than-life personality. Mitchell tells us a lot about where Fo comes from theatrically, but little about his inner life. Why, for instance, the obsessive need to satirise the Catholic church, surely one of modern Italy's easier targets?

So while this book remains a classic (the spirited chapter on British versions of Fo and Rame's work contains fascinating insights into the perils of adapting such improvisational theatre), it also stimulates a hunger it never really satisfies. A third of it is a dry chronology, with extensive notes on Fo's stage and radio plays, films, songs and books. But there are no photographs of Fo in action. Perhaps the publisher should have included a CD-ROM with some footage of him on stage. When dealing with such a unique performer, every picture is worth a thousand footnotes.

The reviewer's book, `In-Yer-Face Theatre', will be published by Faber next year