As a west European who turned 90 earlier this year, Dario Fo belongs to a remarkable generation. Born during the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, they were teenagers during the devastation of the Second World War. Those who survived went on to become part of the great postwar rebuilding of Europe, only to see that work increasingly challenged by the return of right-wing politics after 1980; and yet they are known to some statisticians as the “golden generation”, more likely to have lived on into very old age than any generation before them.
And there can be no 90-year-old of whom all that is more true than of Fo, the great radical writer, performer, artist, activist and Nobel Prize winner whose birthday is about to be celebrated in a special season of events across Edinburgh, jointly curated by Eleven – the London-based arts production company created by former Summerhall artistic director Rupert Thomson – with Glasgow academic, translator and critic Joe Farrell, and radical theatre director Frances Rifkin. In a direct quote from one of Fo’s own accounts of his work, the festival is called Dancing With Colours, Whipping With Words; and its flagship event is a visit from Fo himself, who will appear in conversation with Farrell at the Royal Lyceum Theatre on 9 October.
“We’re delighted that – with the help of funding from Creative Scotland – the idea of creating this season in Edinburgh has come together so well,” says Thomson. “The centrepiece will be the conversation with Dario Fo himself; but we’re also very keen to offer an insight into Dario’s wonderful work as a visual artist, which was his first love – there will be exhibitions at the Lyceum, the Scottish Storytelling Centre and the Italian Cultural Institute.
“Then there are four performances of contemporary theatre work that seems in some way to develop the style of satirical comedy Fo created, in partnership with his late wife, the wonderful writer and performer Franca Rame. Making sure that Franca’s contribution is fully acknowledged is one of our aims, and there will be a rehearsed reading of a new play by Morna Pearson called I, Mother, inspired by France Rame’s monologue A Mother. There’s also Kieran Lynn’s new Play, Pie And Pint show Breaking The Ice, about a climate change bureaucrat; Julia Taudevin’s recent “guerrilla gig theatre” piece, Blow Off; and Mark Thomas’s 100 Acts Of Minor Dissent, which he’s reviving especially for this season.
“Fo’s right-hand man and favourite performer, Mario Pirovano, will give a performance of Francis The Holy Jester at the Scottish Storytelling Centre; and then there’s a political theatre workshop with Rifkin, along with two discussion panels at the Traverse, featuring a range of Scottish-based theatre artists and academics who have encountered Fo and Rame’s work, and experienced its impact.”
Just what that impact has been will be one of the main topics of debate at the Traverse events; but it’s certainly true that in the early 1980s, Fo’s work was brought centre stage in Scotland by colleagues and fellow-activists including John McGrath and Liz MacLennan of 7:84, and the then Borderline director Morag Fullarton, now joint artistic director at A Play, A Pie And A Pint, who took successful productions of Fo/Rame plays including Female Parts, Can’t Pay Won’t Pay, Trumpets And Raspberries and Mistero Buffo to venues across Scotland during the 1980s and early 90s.
“I think there was just this huge interest in creating politically-aware theatre that was popular and entertaining,” says Fullarton, who will appear along with playwright Douglas Maxwell and Tron director Andy Arnold in the 7 October panel discussion. “And I certainly felt that this was a slightly different way of approaching political theatre than the one 7:84 and Wildcat were adopting, which was a bit more polemical and didactic. Fo’s technique is purely comic, in a way that draws on some very old popular performing traditions; and I loved working with that.
“The first text I encountered was actually Female Parts, by Fo and Rame, and I was thrilled by this powerful, campaigning feminist voice, and by the idea of bringing it to Scottish audiences. Dario and Franca were always very insistent that people should adapt the texts to reflect their own situation, and after Female Parts, Joe Farrell and I always worked together, creating texts that captured the spirit of the original plays, but also had their own Scottish voice. Dario himself came to Scotland to see
our production of Trumpets And Raspberries, and said he felt we had absolutely understood the spirit
Fullarton is hesitant about tracing any strong influence of Fo’s work on the latest generation of Scottish writers, although she sees a similar satirical and absurdist spirit in Kieran Lynn’s play. What’s striking, though, is the roll-call of performers who were involved in those early Fo productions, and who still have a bold approach to comic performance today; they include Edinburgh panto star Andy Gray, Elaine C Smith, Gregor Fisher, Juliet Cadzow, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Cumming, among others. And Thomson is clear that he wants this festival both to honour that 40-year-old tradition, and to introduce Fo’s work to a younger generation.
“It’s essentially a theatre of protest, against injustice, corruption, oppression,” says Thomson, “but its vehicle is popular humour, and that gives it a reach that goes far beyond audiences of the converted. So I hope this festival will give the next generation of theatre artists some real insight into one of the great influences that helped shape the radical tradition of Scottish and world theatre; but also a sense of how to take that spirit forward, in the world they’re facing now.” ■
Dancing With Colours, Whipping With Words: Dario Fo and Political Theatre is at venues across Edinburgh, 6-30 October,