Dario Fo, who died last Thursday, was the most widely performed contemporary playwright in the world, so a dutiful critic could chronicle his relationship with countries as diverse as Sri Lanka and Finland. I once visited his house in Milan to find three actors from Sri Lanka engaged in an excited but linguistically challenged discussion on how their recent production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a work based on the death in police custody of an innocent man arrested in connection with a terrorist outrage in Milan, had struck a chord with their audiences when their country was riven by civil war.
It would, then, be absurd to suggest that Fo had a special relationship with Scotland and Scottish theatre, but he was surprised and gratified at his popularity here. There was a period in the 1980s when the leading Scottish playwright seemed to be Dario Fo. He dominated the Fringe for many years and staging his work presented a challenge which was eagerly taken up by such directors as Morag Fullarton and Andy Arnold, and by actors like Juliet Cadzow, Elaine C Smith, Andy Gray and Robbie Coltrane. Each was engaged on a search to unearth beneath the Italian topsoil the deeper seam of anarchic spirit and madcap farce allied to an ethical and political seriousness which would strike a chord with the Scottish psyche and fit into the Scottish theatre tradition founded, as it is, on the practice of music hall and panto.
His work enriched Scottish theatre. Perhaps the play which first aroused deep interest was Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!, initially directed by Arnold. It lent a slogan to the anti-poll tax campaign, and focused attention on the impact of inflation on daily life. However, pride of place in any account of Fo in Scotland must go to Borderline Theatre and its then artistic director, Morag Fullarton. She was responsible for the first Fo production, All Bed, Board and Church, feminist monologues co-written by Fo and his actress wife, Franca Rame. Performed by Juliet Cadzow in the bar of the newly established Tron theatre, the bite, passion and questioning uncertainty of the one- woman pieces gave an indication of how feminist theatre could be done without the preachy querulousness Franca abominated.
Fo’s scripts in their written form can seem dull and pedestrian, but he regarded that as almost a pre-requisite of good playwriting. Even though his quotes from other writers often turn out to be manufactured, he attributed to Bertolt Brecht the view that Shakespeare’s only defect is that his scripts read too well on the page. The work of a real playwright should shine only in performance. For Fo, the distance between page and stage is narrow, and sometimes his scripts read almost like a series of notes to actors, leaving them to get on with the job.
The other problem is to find a means of letting the comedy rip without diminishing the political charge. Fo responded to the initiative of those who took his work seriously, and was especially fulsome in his praise of Morag Fullarton’s production of Trumpets and Raspberries, which he saw in Edinburgh when he was in the city to perform Mistero Buffo. He was not an easy man to please when it came to foreign productions of his work. He hated the West End production of Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Gavin Richards, a production which first brought him to prominence in Britain. He had to be calmed down at the interval, when he was threatening to withdraw production rights. He accused the company of going all out for laughs and missing the underlying tragedy and pathos.
The Borderline version of Trumpets avoided, in his view, all the standard pitfalls and on more than one occasion in subsequent years he held it up as an example. The cast included Andy Gray and Elaine C Smith, and the inventiveness of the production, the lively tempo of the performance and the successful resolution of the central problem of maintaining the comic tone without undermining the political questioning impressed him.
He was fulsome in his praise of the ability of director and actors to combine the speed of the madcap farce with an understanding that this work was not pure escapism, that it asked where power lay in modern society, with elected representatives or with captains of industry and financial gnomes. Mistero Buffo, a series of monologues from medieval sources, adapted and reworked by Fo, was later performed by Robbie Coltrane as part of Glasgow’s 1990 City of Culture celebrations. This too was a Borderline production, directed by the energetic Fullarton, and on this occasion the challenge, overcome in Coltrane’s performance, was to find an actor capable of playing parts Fo had written for himself.
Even his most bitter opponents, and there were many, were forced to admit that Fo was an actor of genius, so the dilemma facing those who wish to produce his one-man shows is to find a performer of comparable stage presence and versatility of tone and personification. Robbie Coltrane fulfilled these requirements.
Legacy is rarely framed by measures self-serving people in power implement to create a favourable image, but in unexpected ways. The impact of Dario Fo on Douglas Maxwell is a case in point.
Maxwell is now a widely admired playwright whose work has been translated into several languages, and when his adaptation of an Argentinian work was produced by the National Theatre of Scotland as Yer Granny, he used his programme notes to refer to the enjoyment he had derived as a schoolboy in Ayrshire from the Borderline productions of Dario Fo.
He saw on stage a kind of theatre which spoke to him in a familiar idiom, conveyed in a style which could be enjoyed, not merely endured, and which he could later employ in his own work. Dario would have been pleased.
The art exhibition, organised as part of the Dancing with Colours, Whipping with Words festival in Fo’s honour in Edinburgh, continues until 30 October at the Netherbow, the Lyceum and the Italian Cultural Institute.