Friday, May 15, 2009

Review: Francis the Holy Jester

I've not been to many premiers of plays by Nobel Prize winning writers on the life and times of medieval saints. Not many at all. But then Dario Fo is no ordinary playwright and Francis of Assisi was no ordinary Saint.

Last night I took myself down to the Italian Cultural Institute to see the first public performance in English of "Francis the Holy Jester" and I have to say it was superb. Translated and performed by long time Fo collaborator, Mario Pirovano, we were treated to a classic mix of history, passion and laughter.

Pirovano's performance was energising, taking on, as he did, the parts of Francis, wolves, peasants and Popes with equal gusto. His relentless humour was infectious and the ad libs and asides well genuinely affecting.

Dario Fo's play gently paints Francis as a simple man who founded the first anti-war movement and who pioneered environmental thinking which led to his status as patron saint of animals. The play makes a convincing case and, as a confirmed cynic, I found myself unexpectedly inspired by the idea of this man who confronted authority in the cause of peace and against social injustice.

One episode sees Francis undergoing trials and tribulations trying to gain audience with the Pope in order to be "allowed" to preach the gospel in the language of the people, including the provincial languages. His hilarious encounter with Innocent III (the Warrior Pope) dressed in rags and covered with dung emphasises the authoritarian power of the church and their fear of the people.

There are dates around various parts of the country and I'd recommend seeing this very modern history lesson. When Francis tells us that "in order to get people to listen, you must talk to the animals" he says more about the power of allegory when inspiring political ideas than a hundred tomes by much respected radical academics.


Joseph said...


I am a big fan of Dario Fo and have been for over 20 years. I went to see a preview of this in the building in which I work and as you say it was excellent. Mario was wonderful but worried about how UK audiences would respond as it is the premiere of this play in English. I told him that it would be no problem. As you say, it demonstrates how far the Catholic Church went from the founding tenets of Christianity, which I have always seen as close to Socialism. Brecht was once asked which book had influenced him the most and replied that it was the Bible.

But it also demonstrates, as Mario says in the play, how much of the history of Francis has been doctored to ensure that his life appears 'safe' and in tune with the dogmas of the Church. It is no surprise that Stalin began as a seminarian and there are some similarities with his removal from the historical record of those marked down as 'heretics'.

As someone who venerates those who speak truth unto power and does not always toe the party line, I would strongly recommend seeing this play.

ryan said...

Hello Jim,

Thought you might also like to know Mario Pirovano is returning with Dario Fo's play on September 8th at St James's Church in Piccadilly, London. A wonderful venue for a wonderful event.