Dario Fo: Nobody's fool

The playwright Dario Fo was described by the Nobel prize committee as being like a court jester, exposing state abuse. As his most famous play is revived in London, he talks to Lee Marshall
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Dario Fo never stops moving. At 76, seven years after a stroke that left him partially blind in one eye, the dramatist who made political satire a vital force, and dragged it out of the staid Whitehall ghetto, is still a blur of energy. When I talked to him, he was off to Fano, on Italy's Adriatic coast, to act as MC for a carnival show involving 500 people that he had been asked to devise and direct.

Dario Fo never stops moving. At 76, seven years after a stroke that left him partially blind in one eye, the dramatist who made political satire a vital force, and dragged it out of the staid Whitehall ghetto, is still a blur of energy. When I talked to him, he was off to Fano, on Italy's Adriatic coast, to act as MC for a carnival show involving 500 people that he had been asked to devise and direct.

Fo was also on the road on the Thursday in October 1997 when it was announced that he had won the Nobel prize for literature: he learnt about the honour when a carload of journalists pulled up alongside his minivan, brandishing a sign that read, "Dario, hai vinto il Nobel!". Staff at the next motorway service station were amazed when the neo-laureate and his entourage pulled in for a celebratory drink.

In its motivation, the Swedish Academy wrote that Fo had "opened our eyes to the abuses and injustices that exist in society, in the tradition of the medieval jester". Fo put it better himself in a celebrated passage from his irreverent modern Gospel, Mistero Buffo, which dates back to 1969 but has not lost its relevance: "I am the jongleur... I make fun of those in power, and I show how puffed up and conceited are the big shots who go around making wars in which we are the ones who get slaughtered."

The court jester's freedom of speech was guaranteed, at least in theory, by the very authority he held up to ridicule. Fo has not always been so lucky. He was sacked by the RAI, Italy's national broadcasting corporation, as long ago as 1962, when he refused to change a sketch about the construction industry. He has had various run-ins with the Vatican, which described Mistero Buffo, as televised in the 1970s by a RAI that had taken the hugely popular Fo back into the fold, as "the most sacrilegious performance ever broadcast". (Fo says: "I've never been against the Vatican; only a part of the clergy, especially the Opus Dei faction.") He has been arrested and briefly imprisoned for subversive activities, and in 1973, his wife and artistic partner, Franca Rame, was abducted in daylight on the streets of Milan, bundled into an army truck, slashed with razor blades, and gang-raped by five neo-Fascists. Years later, it emerged that the rape had been carried out on the orders of senior Milanese police officers.

Fo is commonly cited as "the world's most-performed living playwright", with about 300 productions starting up each year. But although he has written more than 70 plays, most international productions are of a handful of titles, including Can't Pay? Won't Pay!, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Mistero Buffo and Female Parts.

Though translated and performed in the UK since the late Sixties, his anti-authoritarian works really struck a chord in the early Thatcher years: Accidental Death and Can't Pay? Won't Pay! kept Fo's name in West End lights for almost three years, from 1980-82. Fo's London glory years culminated in 1983 with the portly playwright's own performance of Mistero Buffo, an electrifying visitation that the critic Irving Wardle described as "comparable to London's first sight of the Berliner Ensemble". Since then, apart from a National Theatre revival of Accidental Death in 1991, Fo's oeuvre has mostly drifted into the penumbra of rep, amateur and student theatre (though he scored another coup – one he mentions proudly to every UK journalist he meets – when "Can't pay? Won't pay!" was taken up as a slogan by poll-tax protesters).

So, the Donmar Warehouse production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which opens tomorrow with the Hollywood-hot Welsh actor Rhys Ifans as the Maniac, is a bit of a UK relaunch for Fo. And poses the question of how solid the foundations of his reputation are, and how lasting it will be.

When Fo won the Nobel, surprise was the dominant reaction in the Italian literary establishment. Carlo Bo, elder statesman of Italian lit crit, confessed that he was unfamiliar with Fo's work and "probably too old to understand"; another media academic, Giulio Ferroni, said, "I greatly admire Fo the actor, but where is his literature?". A fellow-critic, Alfonso Berardinelli, echoed, "You can't really call his plays literary texts".

Fo bristles when faced by suggestions that he is not a proper writer, or that his prolific output makes him little more than a compiler of agitprop dramatic chapbooks. "People who accuse me of writing too much, lack historical awareness. Think of Carlo Goldoni – as a capocomico [a theatre's writer-in-residence], he wrote 12 plays in a single season. He managed 110 or 115 plays in all. I just hope I live that long."

The idea that a writer who also acts, directs and designs is somehow diluting his talent is, Fo thinks, another modern prejudice. "Performance is an enormous advantage: it means that when my works are presented abroad, they've already been honed by six months or more on stage... and during this process, there are continual cuts, polishings, adjustments. I often go back to a play years later, when there's a new production in the offing, and tinker with it to get the rhythm and the timing right."

Written in 1970 when Fo and Franca Rame were part of the far-left La Comune theatre collective, Accidental Death was Fo's impassioned but characteristically ironic response to the unexplained death of an anarchist railwayman, Giuseppe Pinelli, who "fell" from the fourth floor of Milan's central police station during a routine interrogation in December 1969. Pinelli was one of several left-wing suspects arrested in connection with a bomb attack on a bank in Milan that killed 16 people. It later became clear that the bomb had been planted by neo-Fascists with the collusion of "deviant" elements of Italy's secret services.

For Fo, the eternal popularity of Accidental Death is not necessarily a cause for celebration. The play is still in demand, he says, because "unfortunately, we haven't moved on. People look around them and see what's happening: there are still state-organised bomb attacks, fear and danger are still stirred up so that they can be used as excuses for a crackdown. In Italy recently, a computer specialist who had identified the organisation behind the murder of two union leaders, was 'suicided', and all of his disks were stolen. Now, the verdict of suicide has been changed to murder: it's the Pinelli story all over again." Fo adds "And the IRA isn't finished. And there is the whole Islamic terrorist problem... If the threat's not there, we can always create it, set it up."

The director Robert Delamere says that his new Donmar staging of Accidental Death will bring out the "dangerous slapstick" of Fo's comedy, the play's "very contemporary sense of collective unease and distrust of the Establishment". Simon Nye's translation takes certain liberties, such as replacing the Italian Communist song at the end with the hip-hop anthem "Don't Believe the Hype", but its main aim, says Delamere, is "to recreate the verve and life and sense of play in Fo's best work".

The best thing about being a court jester is that there's no shortage of work. Today, Fo's barbs are aimed at Italy's prime minister, the self-made media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who has managed to make most Italians forget or dismiss the glaring conflict of interests inherent in his dual role. "Italy is a country," Fo rages, "that has lost the power of indignation. The Neapolitan expression 'Ca nisciun e fessu' – 'Here, nobody is a fool' – is just not true any more. These days, everyone is a fool."

'Accidental Death of an Anarchist', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020-7369 1732) tomorrow to 19 April