Writer: Dario Fo
Adapter: Deborah McAndrew
Based on a translation by: Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante
Director: Conrad Nelson
Designer: Jessica Worrall
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Farce, in more than one sense, is a funny business. The 19th and 20th Century English and French farce tradition depended most often on outwardly respectable, probably middle-class characters embroiled in a situation that became incrementally more absurd and more threatening. Dario Fo’s farces belong to a different breed. The craziness is there from the start, but also a political weight that, in many cases – and here is Fo’s great skill – drives the craziness onward.
Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay, as it was formerly known, was originally staged in 1974, part of the great body of work that earned Fo the Nobel Prize for Literature. Between that play and the one performed by Northern Broadsides at York Theatre Royal two major changes have occurred. In his later years, Dario Fo (who died in 2016 at the age of 90) revised the play, giving it a more pessimistic slant on the power of the workers, so that boisterous energy and a poignantly elegiac mood co-exist in the later stages. Secondly, Deborah McAndrew’s knowing and witty, but politically committed, version sets it very specifically in Britain 2018 – and it comes out every bit as relevant as presumably the original was to 1970s Italy.
The initial conceit of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay? is that this is the day the working classes, spontaneously, independently, strike back. There are strikes and fights in the factory canteen, but the major event is a revolt against increased prices in the supermarket, with most of the goods finding their way out without troubling the tills. After a rather odd pre-curtain street singalong, Anthea zooms across the forestage with trolleys and bags full of goodies (and some non-goodies she picked up just because she might as well) – and the farce is launched.
Anthea needs to conceal her booty from the police who mount a flat-by-flat search of her apartment block but more particularly from her husband Jack, a Socialist idealist who is appalled at the idea of taking anything illicitly from the hated capitalists. Assisted by her credulous friend Maggie, Anthea moves the loot around and brings her vivid imagination into play in inventing excuses. The plot takes off on her lies which, no matter how improbable, are believed and form a base for the next series of lies. Fo and McAndrew manage simultaneously to keep the plot airborne and the politics down to earth.
Lisa Howard’s Anthea is a comic tour de force, exploding with energy and smashing the fourth wall with her asides, usually drawing attention to especially excruciating puns. Michael Hugo similarly destroys the illusion of reality, taking five parts (including two policemen of opposing politics differentiated by an extremely wobbly moustache) and protesting, when his character is accused of not doing something, that he’s already done four parts, so what do they expect? Suzanne Ahmed (Maggie) goes along with Anthea’s wild surmises with a desperate and rather touching earnestness. Steve Huison (Steve) and Matt Connor (Maggie’s husband) are carried along by all the craziness, despite their attempts to act like normal rational beings.
They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay, with its small cast, conventional set (very smart work from Jessica Worrall – great view from the flat window) and place in a modern European tradition, may seem far distant from Broadsides’ core constituency of Northern Shakespeare, full of song, dance and flat vowels, but it is, in fact, Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew’s second successful foray into Fo-land after 2008’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Now Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides, Nelson has always had a keen eye for the European tradition, but Shakespeare is far from forgotten: Much Ado about Nothing in the Spring!
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed