Tom Basden’s 2023 adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, the twentieth-century tour-de-farce, was first performed in 1970. Dariel Fo and Franco Rame’s original play drew on the real death of Giuseppe Pinelli in 1969, who was wrongly arrested after a terrorist bombing, and who mysteriously fell from the fourth floor of a Milan police station.
Each line of the play is taken from police interviews, court transcripts, and media accounts of the ensuing cover up. But here, Basden has moved the story to London and into the Metropolitan Police force. We meet the lead character, “the Maniac”, played by Daniel Rigby, in a London station, where he is launching an inquiry into the death. As the Maniac investigates, he leads the police into ever more absurd arguments and excuses to justify their lies and violence.
When researching the play, Basden worked with Inquest, the charity that investigates deaths. Since its debut in Sheffield, the play has been constantly reworked. Perhaps an indication that this is a work in progress, the director Daniel Raggett has lit the stage with the outline of an open book. It’s an image of transparency.
Having adapted the script to a UK context, Basden has worked in references to Stephen Lawrence, Sarah Everard, Stormzy and the TV show “Call of Duty”. At one moment we see a ticking clock of police deaths in custody. But these unnecessary polemics perhaps feel a little jarring, and partially obscure the power of the underlying story – a frenetic farce – and its central theme of injustice. The stage has been partially transformed into a soapbox.
There’s much to be said about the subtler elements of Basden’s scripting. When he appears as the aged judge, the Maniac proclaims their pronouns “we/they”. It’s no cheap shot at snowflakes. It’s intended to hint at who really stokes, and profits from, our so-called culture wars. The character of the journalist is also played as a parody of inherited privilege.
The issues of hierarchy and privilege are also evident in the play’s undercurrent of racial tension. Ro Kumar’s Agent Joseph is routinely pressured into praising the Met’s new diversity policies; he obliges, but is he only doing so to protect his own prospects?
What place does a political farce such as this have today? It’s satire’s sillier sibling – a direct critique filtered through performance – intended for the kind of audience who find a glass of water over the head inherently funny. Accidental Death of an Anarchist’s humour stays consistently light, but still something about it becomes increasingly warped, twisted – even grotesque.
A younger audience might well warm to this style of drama. They would have first encountered Rigby a decade ago in Black Mirror and before then, Tony Gardener (Superintendent Curry) in Fresh Meat.
It’s a powerful play and one that still feels relevant. On the night I went, the seats were filled with actors, journalists and a scattering of A-listers. It’s a credit to the cultural power this production still bears.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 9 September 2023.