Director Anna Lee Jones noted in the program for Accidental Death of an Anarchist that putting on a political farce was something a bit out of the ordinary for the St Andrews theatre scene. Saturday night’s performance was certainly unusual, jam packed with fast paced action and hijinks as well as brief moments of gravitas. However, in spite of being slightly unpolished, the show ultimately charmed with its unique style.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist was written by Dario Fo in 1969 to convey the corruption of the bureaucracy and state of Mussolini’s Italy. It depicts the story of a Maniac who constantly changes identity and creates mischief and misadventures at a police station. He discovers a file detailing a recent suspicious death of an Anarchist who seemingly either jumped or was pushed to his death from the window of that same police station. The Maniac (Jack Briggs), disguised as a judge re-opening the case, then embarks on a quest to discover what really happened, encountering a variety of dubious personnel along the way.
Despite it being written nearly 50 years ago, the play’s message in many ways remains relevant today, which was emphasized with some clever touches from Jones. Particularly notable was the incorporation of N.W.A’s “F*** the Police” as a famous anthem of anarchy – something that could easily have been jarring, but instead was inserted effectively and, more importantly, hilariously. The rapping performances of the tightly-wound Superintendent (Mishia Leggett) and the dim-witted Constable (Matthew Colley) were especially humorous, simultaneously conveying both actors’ commitment to their characters and late ‘80s rap.
The vast majority of the lines spoken in the play are done so by the Maniac. As his name would suggest, the character requires super-human like levels of energy and charisma to ensure that the audience remains invested in his story. Briggs’ Maniac exploded with vigor and he somehow maintained this level (which most can only achieve by drinking ungodly amounts of Red Bull) throughout the show. He impressively embodied this manic energy into a sly, chameleon of a character and (mostly) successfully switched from personality to personality, incorporating some astounding physicality and movement along the way. I use the word “mostly” purely because, due to the sheer astonishing speed at which Briggs delivered his plethora of lines, it was sometimes difficult to understand what he was saying. As he was the main character, this led to some plot-related confusion along the way. Despite this, his devilish charm and sometimes terrifyingly direct smashing of the fourth wall ensured that the Maniac was a hit.
The play itself is also described as a “modern champion of commedia dell’arte” which is further defined in the program as “relying on character tropes and improvisation.” Whilst the performance I saw was at many times laugh out loud funny, some physical gags felt rather sloppy. With something like commedia dell’arte, such moments needed to be crisp and tightly choreographed. Instead of coming across as organized chaos, at times the action just seemed messy and occasionally distracting from the main plot. Additionally, the “character tropes” did not come across well for some of the performers. With a little more rehearsal and planning, the whole production could have come across much more smoothly.
Though perhaps a bit confusing, Anarchist was for the most part greatly amusing and thought-provoking where it needed to be. Dramatic desk leaps, ukulele strumming, and mini-Groot battles were just a few of the many eclectic highlights demonstrated on Saturday night. Jones and her team’s foray into the St Andrean unfamiliar was a success overall.