“I thought he was dead,” an old man behind me whispers to his wife. But Dario Fo is showing more than a few signs of life. A plump, genial presence, he has just walked to the stage in a wide-brimmed Panama hat, fawn suit and cravat. He acknowledges his audience with a bow and a doff of the hat. He might look like the Man from Del Monte, but he knows how to make an entrance.
Six hundred people, some of them still clutching bottles of beer, have been herded into a makeshift tent to hear Fo speak (in Italian) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It is a rare appearance in Britain for the 79-year-old winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and author of the play Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
He has brought with him his wife and collaborator, the Italian actress Franca Rame, who has both performed on stage and written plays with him in a partnership that has lasted half a century. The pair are ushered on stage, together with a buxom Italian translator, by Joseph Farrell, the straight-talking professor of Italian studies at the University of Strathclyde, who introduces them as “the most distinguished theatrical couple in Europe”.
As if to match Fo’s sartorial extravagance, Rame wears dark round sunglasses and pea-like earrings. She is dressed in several shades of cream, a gracefully ageing actress. Farrell talks to her first and she says she met Fo more than 50 years ago, when he was so shy, that “in the end I was forced to behave like a man - I threw him against a wall and covered him with kisses. It was shortly after that that we got married.” She gets a raucous laugh.
The mood in the tent is jolly and expectant. But Farrell wants to raise the tone - he wants to know more about what inspired Fo to become the actor and playwright he is. Fo explains that he realised early on that if he wanted to win an audience for his political fables he first had to learn how to entertain. When he was in high school, he used to commute from his home in Lombardy to Milan. While his friends sat around in the train carriage, he would stand up and recount short, ironic little stories. He stands up and mimics trying to perform while on a shaking and swaying train, and the audience responds with fits of laughter. “By the time I got to Milan,” he says, “I was hoarse. But on the way home, everyone wanted a new show.” Another furious round of applause. Fo’s comic timing is masterful, and only reinforced by the rhythm of the translation. His translator chops his sentences up and relays them in short, staccato bursts, and each repeated sentence, or part sentence, gets a laugh of its own. Those who speak a little Italian are careful to laugh ahead of everyone else.
But the performance is in danger of degenerating into the kind of farce that is such a trademark of Fo’s theatre. Farrell scolds his audience for their lack of seriousness, but everyone - including both he and Fo - is still smiling. Fo reminisces about his political radicalisation in the 1960s. There was, he says, “a great political ferment and a rupture with the existing way of doing things”. He and Rame were already established actors, but in 1968 they set up a co-operative theatre group and put on a series of plays in factories occupied by striking workers. Thanks to them the workers were able to go on occupying the factories. Very often, Rame interjects, “strikes were won because of our assistance.”
Realising that time is short, Farrell wants to give the audience some time to ask questions. Did the police and security services ever show any interest in you? asks one man. Fo laughs heartily at the questioner’s naivety.
”We travelled accompanied by the police,” he says, “both uniformed and plain-clothes officers.” Other shadowy agents provocateurs on the extreme right set fire to venues where they were due to play, and burned down their house. Fo was even arrested and put in jail, but was eventually acquitted. “It has,” he says proudly, “been an adventurous life.”
Time is now definitely up, and Farrell wants to thank them both for coming. But Fo is not finished. He would like, he says, to perform a grammelot, a medieval form of comedy theatre in which the performer mouths gibberish that is designed to sound plausible in a particular language. In deference to his audience, Fo says he is going to give us a Celtic grammelot. For two whole minutes he spouts an avalanche of utter nonsense, remonstrating insistently with the audience, gesticulating wildly with his hands, and finally breaking into manic song. It is a magnificently exuberant performance, making him look some kind of possessed racing tipster, and for his efforts he receives a thunderous standing ovation. Later I hear that Fo became so excited that he threw off his cravat. A reward, apparently, is still being offered for its return.