The comic anarchism of Dario Fo holds a fascination for Deborah McAndrew who is adapting his classic satire of civil disobedience Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! for Northern Broadsides and York Theatre Royal.
Deborah’s adaptation has become They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay? keeping the tone and playfulness of Fo’s classic, but transposing the action to modern Britain.
Deborah had a successful career as an actor, including a memorable run as the spirited Angie Freeman in Coronation Street, but since concentrating on writing she has become one of the cleverest adaptors of classic texts around. One of her early successes was an adaptation of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist for Halifax based Broadsides a decade ago.
“Fo’s work comes out of the madness of the Italian political situation but his work has been staged across the world because there are just parallels everywhere,” says Deborah. “What he is always dealing with is corruption, cock up and the poor and oppressed always missing out.
“I’d done the adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarchist and you have to get permission from Italy. They have to approve your script, which is all a bit of a palaver, so it just made sense I should do it. It needs adapting and anglicising as the references and the arguments that Fo makes in the original play those gaps need to be filled with English parallels.”
It wouldn’t make sense to do Fo’s piece as a period piece as it would feel terribly dated, but the Italian master’s words about the universal failure of politicians offered Deborah a perfect chance to reflect on a divided Britain seemingly on the edge of a collective meltdown.
“In a nutshell the play itself is about food poverty and it starts off with a raid on a supermarket where prices have gone up again. When Fo was writing this play in the early 1970s it was a time of galloping inflation in Italy, and that’s not the situation we have in England today, but we do have food poverty.
“We’ve got foodbanks, holiday hunger and all kinds of strategies being offered by churches, schools and other organisations to support people haven’t got enough food, or having to choose between paying the electricity bill and buying food for the week.
“So it seemed like a time where there were really strong parallels, and although it is different we have a politically volatile environment now in England.”
The artistic response to Brexit Britain has in many ways been muted and at times heavy handed. The real genius of Fo is he highlights the absurdity of political systems so there are laughs mixed into some hard hitting points about the human cost of poverty.
Deborah has once again teamed up with her husband Conrad Nelson, who as well as being Broadsides’ new artistic director is directing this piece.
“Not withstanding that I’m his wife I think Conrad has got a real good nose for that kind of comedy,” notes Deborah. “Slapstick and that sense of the ridiculous because it is all about timing and that sense of musicality. He has that very musical mind, which is his relationship to this kind of comedy, and he knows how to time it, so I know if I put it on the page it will appear on stage with interest.
“One of the reasons why Fo’s plays work is because he uses comedy always to expose absurdity and says isn’t it ridiculous, and it is. It’s that thing with tragedy and farce that there is a very, very thin line between the two things. Fo walks that line and goes this is really funny, but actually it is also terrible.
“You might say it sugars the pill, but it makes it possible to look at these things, and to not go that’s a heavy night in the theatre, and we don’t want that. It is fun and enjoyable, but also makes you think.”
Deborah is well aware that she is treading a very fine with audiences who will reflect a post Brexit Britain as the argument still rages over how we come out of the European Union, or maybe not. Fo at the end of his long life began to lose hope that anything will ever change, and after the global banking collapse reworked the ending of his original text for Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!
“Capitalism had failed and yet any kind of political system that Fo might have thought possible in his youth, such as some kind of socialist state or Communism, had won the argument but failed to provide any kind of realistic alternative, and how had that happened?
“He introduces this thing where the characters disappear into a famous painting called the Fourth Estate, which is a portrait of the working class. We’re going to use, and this is a spoiler alert, an image of the Jarrow march, so we have an English connection, but strangely there is a photograph of that march that is so resonant and similar to the Fourth Estate.
“His working class characters who might have some sort of socialist beliefs are frozen in time as relics and it is very dark. I can see why a very old man at the end of his life would feel hopeless, but I can’t afford to put a piece of work in front of an audience at this stage of our political journey and say guess what it’s all over. We have to move forward.”
Fo might have ended up at the end of his long life despairing of any significant political change but Deborah has resisted the temptation to go down the same bleak road.
“The ending is not to say there is no solution, and no hope, but to say what is the solution? I’ve got a 17 year old daughter, and apart from the fact I want her to have a future, I also have hope that the kid are alright. They have some good ideas and good hearts.
“It may well that in this political generation there is an absolute intellectual and moral vacuum at the heart of British politics at the moment, and I think not many people would disagree with that.
“There will come a time when new blood comes in with new ideas and it might not be a socialist utopia, that was always a hope too far, and you have to take everyone with you and there are too many people who don’t want that to happen.
“We need some middle ground and balance, so I suppose it is an open question at the end. It’s the spirit of whatever the Jarrow marches were about that isn’t dead and remains alive. We can be inspired by their courage and by their values.”
They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! opens at York Theatre Royal, from 5th – 13th October and will then tour to Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford; Hull Truck Theatre; Liverpool Playhouse; New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield; Stephen Joseph Theatre and the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax.