Director’s Diary - Accidental Death of an Anarchist

The Stirling Players

Directed by Lesley Reed

September 8-23, 2023, Stirling Community Theatre, Stirling, South Australia

Lesley Reed cast an all-female acting ensemble for her production of this absurdist comedy, which also starred a lift, a bomb and a false leg.  

The Beginning

The biting Italian political satire Accidental Death of an Anarchist had long intrigued me. Based on the bombings in Italy in 1969, institutional corruption and a tragic death in custody, I was fascinated with the involvement in political activism by the play’s author, Dario Fo, and how much this linked him to the actual events behind the play. 

With institutional corruption and custodial deaths still happening worldwide, I was delighted that The Stirling Players was also excited about the potential of this classic play and scheduled the Ed Emery English edition for the company’s 2023 season.

Behind the Play-An Amazing True Story

In 1969 there was widespread political and social tension in Italy. On December 12, 1969, a bomb exploded in the Bank of Agriculture, Milan. Many people died. More bombs then exploded in Rome. Left-wing anarchists across Italy were arrested by right-wing Italian authorities. One, Guiseppe Pinelli, was interrogated at the central police station in Milan without any evidence of his guilt. On December 15, Pinelli plummeted from a fourth-floor police station window.

Police present at Pinelli’s interrogation gave several different versions to various enquiries into the truth about Pinelli’s death under interrogation. There was much press and public speculation about a coverup. Well-regarded left-wing activist of the time, playwright and public figure Dario Fo also questioned the truth, as did a left-wing journalist. Although aware of Fo’s leftist activity, when authorities discovered the play he was now writing was a farce, they took their eyes off him. However, while written in comedic disguise, the play was an expose of the political corruption and probable coverup behind Pinelli’s death.

People flocked to Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist when it opened in 1970 in Milan. Uproar occurred on the realisation that the storyline was a startling reflection of the recent real events in Milan. It involved a ‘maniac’ using disguise, quick wit and deception to outsmart bumbling police. Prosecutions for the 1969 bombings went on for decades. Right-wing, not left-wing, activists were eventually found guilty of the 1969 bombings. Some truths emerged on the circumstances of Pinelli’s death, but police weren’t charged.


The Main Challenge 

The major challenge for all contemporary stagings of the play, decades after the events behind it occurred, was to engage and immerse audiences who had no personal experience of the play’s underpinning events. Would they respond only to the comedy and not think further about the many dark, underlying themes?

Director’s Vision

I wanted to leave our contemporary audiences with aching ribs from laughing at the absurd comedy, but also with plenty to take home in terms of the play’s relevance in our times of oft-reported deaths in custody, fake news, worldwide extremism, and political corruption.

I also saw an opportunity to enhance the inherent absurdism, by casting all the male police with female actors, with them looking and acting as males. I saw this casting choice also as a strong means of commenting on power and its misuse, both in global terms and in the workplace, where males tend to have power unafforded to most women.

Roles, Auditions and Casting

Male characters in the play include a Maniac, a Superintendent of Police, two Inspectors and two Constables (constables played by same actor). There is one powerful female character, Feletti, a journalist.

Auditions were held a year in advance to secure strong actors, with very good performers attending. The key role to cast was the Maniac, a wily, agile, trickster. Central to the action, he uses disguise and is the inquisitor, constantly questioning, challenging, and outwitting police. He was Fo’s invention and, unlike some other characters, not based on a real person. 

Danii Zappia, an experienced actor and drama teacher, shone at auditions and was cast in the role. 

Character Development, Commedia dell’Arte and Slapstick

The play’s author, Dario Fo, was an expert in the mediaeval Italian comedic form of acting, Commedia dell’Arte. Some of its characteristics include the use of physical comedy, masks and recognisable character types. These stock characters reflect various levels of power, a strong theme in Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

During the audition callout I was contacted by Doctor Corinna Di Niro, Australia’s leading expert on Commedia dell’Arte. Adelaide-based, she was keen to contribute her expertise to help the production. While we both agreed Accidental Death of an Anarchist was not a Commedia play as such, we knew it contained an essence of the form in its characters, its physicality, use of disguise and trickery. Corinna provided a useful workshop in Commedia dell’Arte to the actors. She also put forward her views on which classic Commedia character most likely correlated with each character in the play. 

Actors worked to develop key characteristics relevant to, but not dependent on Commedia dell’Arte. We also researched Fo’s likely ‘reality’ basis for each character - for example, Inspector Pissani was likely based on a person present at the interrogation of Pinelli and who was said to have a penchant for forcing detainees onto high windowsills during interrogations.

Physicality was key to the farcical nature of the play. Actors were drilled in the short, choreographed song and dance elements and, for slapstick, by an expert trained in physical comedy. The result was very funny to watch and exhausting yet rewarding for actors, who had ensured good physical fitness before rehearsals began.

Creating Male Police Using Female Actors

Creating believable ‘males’ was a challenge. While each actor had the talent to achieve ‘male’ personas, including physicality, the costuming, hair and facial appearance were also key to each character. 

Costumes, such as male suits, were well achieved and wigs, including a hilarious ‘combover’ one, were used where needed. Facial hair and makeup for correct male bone contour needed to be realistic, and we achieved this through the skills of work experience students from an Adelaide makeup academy. 

Set and Props

We set the play in its original 1970 timeline and place, Milan. Several of our actors were of Italian heritage and so accents were no major issue.

The play is set over two floors in police headquarters, with a shift up to the fourth floor following the first scene. A large frame, strong enough to hold an actor, was built in the upstage flat, with its window sections opening out into a void. Beyond the void, rather than projection of the ‘view beyond’ we used fine scenic design on a large rollup canvas. Actors worked in full view of audiences and with backstage help to ‘roll up’ the scene change in Act One, from the first to the fourth floor. To add to the illusion of multiple floors, a ‘lift’ was present and the floor number above the lift for the new 4th floor setting after Act One, Scene 1 was also changed by an actor in an amusing sequence during the scene change.

“…the scene transition for the first to fourth floor is an amusing piece in its own right…”-Stage Whispers review.

Props were a challenge, with a ‘bomb’, false leg and hands among the items needed, all of which were achieved creatively.

Our Contemporary Touches

Dario Fo was aware that future productions of Accidental Death of an Anarchist would need to reflect each production’s times in terms of the themes. He publicly gave this his blessing. We endeavoured not to make the contemporary relevance overwhelming but did focus on recent worldwide deaths in custody a little towards the end of the play.

Audience and Critical Response

Audience and critical response to the play, its comedy and its darker themes was pleasing and reward for the detailed planning and considerable dedication by all involved. 

Photographer: Brian Donaghy.

Key Production Credits

Director - Lesley Reed

Assistant Director - Sally Putnam

Production Manager - Tim Williams

Stage Manager - Bronwyn Chapple

Props - Leah Klemm

Slapstick Coach - Bronwyn Palmer

Choreographer - Vanessa Redman

Singing Coach - Sarah Bradley

Commedia dell’Arte workshop - Corinna Di Niro

Set Design - Erik Strauts and Eleni Taylor

Lift Design - Andrew Phillips

Scenic Design - Lilita Daenke and Kathy Wurst

Sound and Lighting - Paul Tossell

Costumes - Gilian Cordell

Hairstyles - Kathryn Stevens

Makeup - Students of Media Makeup Academy International

Publicity - Les Laub and John Graham 


Maniac - Danii Zappia

Superintendent - Georgia Stockham


Inspector Pissani - Anita Zamberlan Canala


Inspector Bertozzo  -Olivia Jane Parker


Constables - Ashleigh Merriel


Feletti - Kyla Booth