Many shows have been described as ‘life-affirming’, and the word has entered that canon of reviewer/promoter jargon, making it lose its significance and meaning. When I describe Francis, the Holy Jester as life-affirming, I do so because it reminded me of the glory of good story-telling, of simple and evocative theatre, and reminded me what it is to be alive and happy. This production is brilliantly realised and performed, and I recommend it whole-heartedly and completely. If you see one show this Edinburgh Fringe, watch Francis, the Holy Jester!
Being a little bit of a theatrical snob, my expectations of this show were extremely high. A new play by Dario Fo, and what’s more, a show directed by Dario Fo? How could this not be brilliant, I found myself thinking. Fo is one of the greatest living playwrights in the world, a revitaliser of commedia del’arte all over the world, and I was expecting something truly spectacular.
I was not disappointed. The show started in a typical Fo manner, a man stumbling on stage, asking the technicians if we had already started… Some of the audience seemed a little confused and bemused, but the drama students sitting in front of me clearly knew what was going on: Fo’s plays and his theories are all about getting the audience involved, meeting and engaging with a real person over a portrayed character, and Mario Pirovano did not disappoint.
He immediately launched into a diatribe about Francis of Assisi, the famous Francis the deacon, the monk, the story-teller, and how the church had maligned his story. Fo loves his religion and loves challenging accepted beliefs, and we were left in no doubt where his loyalties lie when Pirovano launched into his first story of Francis, a speech the monk gave to one of two warring cities, which was full of delightfully abstract allusion and wit. Here was the Francis of Assisi the church tried to hide, the joker, the jester, who taught through humour the message of Christ. As the stories went on and on, flowing out of Pirovano like a river, this new Francis of Assisi became delightfully visible, an imp on the story-teller’s shoulder, guiding us through his magical world.
Pirovano’s performance, and his ability, are astounding. He portrayed every character in each tale with pizzaz, verve and energy, and jumped between them like a spinning dervish, prancing from toe to toe and making the entire stage his own with simple, subtle gestures and movements, and incredible vocal control. His voice could boom, as well as travel with a whisper, and his singing made the rafters quiver. What makes this all the more impressive is that Pirovano’s English is not that brilliant. He has a thick Italian accent, at times nigh-on incomprehensible, but I was never lost, never misunderstood. His words and his movements and his enthusiasm translated all boundaries of language, as did the story he told.
I have only two criticisms for this production: Firstly, it starts a little slowly. I understand Fo’s theories about integrating and making an audience complicit, but I wanted a little more theatricality, a little less explanation and a little more story. However, I can see how this calm and composed opening made me get more involved with the piece… I’d aim for a middle ground, a little less explanation, but this is a minor point. Second, the show is originally 2 hours long, and has been condensed, and suffers for it. Pirovano clearly wanted the audience to stay, wanted to tell us more, and we all found it very hard to leave.The full performance would only have added to this already excellent production.
This is a truly remarkable show, and deserves accolades for its achievements. I recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone who needs a little life-affirmation, and anyone else who is looking for something a little different this Fringe Festival. Truly impressive!