Robert Delamere's Donmar Warehouse production of Accidental Death Of An Anarchist lasts two hours and forty minutes. This is fully an hour longer than any other production of Dario Fo's play that I have ever experienced, whether as spectator or performer. (I know one should try never to lend credence to the bilious claim that reviewers are just frustrated practitioners, but in this case it's directly relevant.) Even allowing for the interval, it's damn near half as long again as all the others. I kept wondering when it was going to hit its farcical cruising speed; it does so just under two and a half hours in. That's a bit late.
The way Fo's agitprop farce is structured, pretty much everything hinges upon the Maniac, the compulsively role-playing nutter who impersonates a judge reinvestigating the awkward case of an anarchist suspect-bomber's fatal fall from a fourth floor window whilst under police interrogation. The Maniac skilfully and mercilessly dissects the cops' inconsistent cover stories and generally runs rings round the plods. Rhys Ifans gives his all to the role-playing and the dissection, but as for running rings, he seldom breaks out of a saunter.
Ifans goes for the character quirks of whatever role the Maniac assumes, right from his first entrance through the window in a Spiderman costume, trying in vain to shoot webs at the policemen who discover him. He takes care that we can largely follow the Maniac's reasoning as he precisely but sarcastically humiliates the police officers trying to evade blame for the anarchist railwayman's death. His blind spot is momentum. He almost completely fails to address the need for an at least semi-frenzied dramatic impetus to sustain the approach and content. Fo used farce to Trojan-horse his savage exposé of Italian state and police machinations in the 1970s (relocated in Simon Nye's new translation to the hereish and nowish). Delamere and Ifans concentrate so much on making sure we can follow the details of the indictment that they rather overlook either making us want to follow them or dragging us along regardless.
There's still much to enjoy. Nye's adaptation is almost as sharp as the classic Gillian Hanna/Gavin Richards English version, and is up-to-the-minute enough to incorporate references to the likes of rabid Scottish bat handlers and the Sons of Glyndwr (though the only mention of "Johnny Iraqi" is in the context of the last Gulf War). Adrian Scarborough's small but menacing Superintendent makes much of a minor vein of homosexual panic, and Paul Ritter's usual comic gift is scarcely hobbled at all by his odd choice of a pseudo-Scouse accent for the Inspector underling. The singalong musical outburst which heralds the interval is rejigged from an Italian anarchist anthem into a segue of the Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" into a megaphone-delivered rap of Public Enemy's "Don't Believe The Hype", and we return afterwards to a blissed-out jam of "Blowin' In The Wind", complete with the Superintendent and Cornelius Booth's Constable toking on jazz cigarettes.
But Ifans' performance should be the engine of the evening, and it is idling. Possibly he is nervous after six years away from the stage (and there's even a self-deprecating reference to that), and he certainly shows that he can do acting, but the role of the Maniac calls for more than just acting, and it's the "more" that's missing.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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