The master of farce, the Italian Prime Minister, his wife and a play that couldn't be censored

Assassins hunt down Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin dies and Mr Berlusconi is horribly wounded in the head. Surgeons repair the Italian Prime Minister's brain with a graft from the dead Russian's so that when Mr Berlusconi comes around, he surveys his political career with icy Putinesque logic.

Imagine such a scenario. Would Mr Berlusconi not be overcome by remorse at the destructive short-term policies he has pursued, and with his altered personality, do everything in his power to start afresh?

This is the premise of a new farce by Dario Fo, Italy's 77-year-old, Nobel prizewinning playwright. The Two-headed Anomaly is due to begin a national tour this month, moving to the Piccolo Teatro, Milan, in January. Despite the strenuous efforts of the man the play satirises, Mr Berlusconi, to stop it in its tracks, that move now looks certain. The board of directors of the theatre in Milan has made a definite commitment to stage the show.

Fo has made a career out of mauling the powerful. In a country beset by powerful pieties and orthodoxies, this lumbering, subversive clown has shown no hesitation in tearing into the political and religious establishment. In return he has, over the years, reaped a rich harvest of threats, censorship, lawsuits and denunciations from the pulpit. Yet Fo has also become part of the Italian landscape: outrageous, excessive, crude but also somehow inevitable.

His next season at the Piccolo will be his 50th. But had it not been for the stout protests of the Piccolo's director, Sergio Escobar, and also perhaps the sudden intervention of Mr Berlusconi's wife, it might never have happened.

Last month, barely three weeks before the tour of The Two-headed Anomaly was due to start, Mr Escobar wrote an impassioned protest in Italy's most important newspaper, Corriere della Sera, spelling out the fact that, as he saw it, censorship in Italy was about to make a disturbing new advance.

"The censors," he wrote, "continue to think in black and white, as [state broadcaster] RAI did 40 years ago when they hunted down Dario Fo and Franca Rame [Fo's wife and constant collaborator]."

He went on: "No sooner had Fo given some extracts of his show to be produced at the Piccolo than advice began to arrive. 'Forget it.' 'The mood is wrong.' And then, 'these are times of economic crisis', 'You know, the financial support ...'"

The board of directors of the theatre demanded to see a copy of the script before confirming the show's run - an indignity that Fo had never before experienced. "It doesn't exist," was Fo's reply. Much of his work has always been improvised.

The pressure was indirect, there was no overt attempt at coercion, but Mr Escobar was in no doubt that it was in earnest.

He wrote in Corriere: "I am sure that the pressure did not come from 'the real power' [Berlusconi] but from the ballast of zealots which always accompany the navigation of every government, rendering it good service."

Mr Escobar had good reason to worry. Since coming to power for a second term more than two years ago, Mr Berlusconi has shown himself to have a dangerously thin skin for a democratic politician. When a protester outside the Milan court where he had been testifying earlier this year told him: "Submit to justice, you buffoon, or end up like Ceausescu!" he snapped at his police escort, "Take that man's particulars!"

When in the summer a German Social Democrat MEP, Martin Schulz, questioned the way Mr Berlusconi had repeatedly evaded legal process, the Prime Minister compared him to a collaborator in a concentration camp.

Mr Berlusconi has shown no hesitation in using his power as a media mogul as well as a national leader to silence much milder critics than Fo.

Michele Santoro, a star of RAI's Channel One, had his show axed for tactless criticism. Enzo Biagi, a highly respected, veteran journalist, was sacked from RAI merely for interviewing the comedian and director Roberto Benigni, a relentless teaser of Mr Berlusconi, on the eve of the last general election.

Fear of the man's power and rage has become infectious. A couple of weeks ago, a RAI programme ran a crude public opinion survey, asking viewers to phone in with their list of things they were most fed up with. When "politicians like Berlusconi who speak but don't act" came in at number one, the makers of the programme were braced for boot of il Cavaliere, as Mr Berlusconi is known.

In the event, nothing happened. But fear hangs in the air, and the longer he is in power the worse it gets: the boss is a bully, the whip is close at hand and he has shown no compunction in using it. On a recent international flight, reporters heard Mr Berlusconi complaining about negative coverage in the newspapers. "Non ne posso piu!" he was heard to say, over and over again. "I can't take it any more!"

So who among the well-paid flatterers who surround him could doubt that Berlusconi would be delighted to see Fo, the ageing, communist buffoon, brought to heel, in Mr Berlusconi's home town of Milan, if nowhere else.

It should have been a walkover: Fo is weakened by a stroke (though that has not stopped him performing his own works). He is a voice from the past, as out of step with Mr Berlusconi's brave new Italy as the Red Brigades or the old Christian Democrats with whom Fo tangled so bitterly decades ago.

But they had picked a fight with the wrong man. Less than a week after Mr Escobar's piece in the newspaper, help came from an unexpected quarter. Veronica Lario, the former starlet who is the second Mrs Berlusconi, is one of the characters in The Two-headed Anomaly. Because there is no script, no one can be sure how he has chosen to treat her, but Ms Lario was clearly curious to find out.

Ambushed during a different show at the Piccolo by a reporter with La Repubblica, she was forthright. "Censorship is a horrible thing, hateful, always unacceptable," she said of the possibility that Fo's play would be stopped. "But I'm sure it will not happen."

And so it has proved: the show will go ahead. Ms Lario's views have been strikingly at odds with her husband's for some time, ever since she came out in the spring as an opponent of the war in Iraq.

Whether her views on Fo and censorship were the cause of the climbdown is one of those intriguing questions that will probably never be answered. But speaking to The Independent, Fo showed himself suitably grateful. "She is a very civil person, she has style, she believes in democracy. Her help was very positive, and it has helped her to put an end to the notion that as a woman she has to submit to the boss's will," he said.

And Fo will go after the husband without mercy. Asked recently whether his work was an attack on powerful people in general, he retorted: "No, no, I want to talk about Berlusconi. Even Shakespeare in his last play, Measure for Measure, dared to strike at the king. And after that he wrote no more, and died."

Ms Rame added: "I hope that isn't going to happen to us."

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