Marieke Hardy, based on Dario Fo and Franca Rame
Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
May 12-June 10, 2023; 2 hrs 30 mins
First performed in the inflationary stagnating mid-1970s, Dario Fo and Franca Rame's absurdist political farce, Can’t pay? Won’t pay! challenges us to think about the winners, and particularly the losers and racing inflation, and champions solidarity with the direct-action approach of a group of mainly housewives who simply refuse to pay fast-rising prices and eventually any price for their groceries.
Almost 50 years later, the themes of the play are just as relevant, and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! has been renamed and updated by Marieke Hardy, first performed, pre-pandemic, in Sydney. It now makes a tremendously timely appearance at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, a setting in which cotton prices were once set by the same market forces blamed here.
Antonia (Samantha Power) returns home laden with "liberated" food, empowered and excited by joining the housewives’ protest. Apart from her worries about being caught by the police, she’s also worried about being found out by her husband, a law-abiding, process-respecting trade-unionist factory worker. The arrival of her friend Margherita (Katherine Pearce) offers a great opportunity for a ludicrous plot to hide the swag in the guise of an unlikely pregnancy. The brilliant performances quickly develop into farce, encompassing a political message and a call to action.
As with all farces, audience members climb on board at their own, different, speeds. The modern relevance and references delivered at pace by a committed and talented cast of five and director Bryony Shanahan, quickly bring widespread gasps and laughter. They are aided by Cecile Tremolieres’ simply bonkers set, colourful and confusing but offering excellent opportunities for further laughter.
Fo’s work is rooted in reality and the original was prompted by real events in 1970s, Italy. That individual communal defiance is less apparent in today’s world, for a whole host of reasons. But today’s world gives plenty of opportunities for political comments to be layered under and above the continuing farce. There is a strong audience response to comments on corruption, profiteering, government incompetence, and self-seeking collaboration from those who should represent and protect the working-class. Modern times certainly provide plenty of context for Fo’s barbs.
The show ends with a strong political speech, and a standing ovation, well deserved by the five actors , directors and designers.
The greatest political farce raises questions and challenges with new opportunities to, maybe, see things differently: the audience might leave the theatre with a different outlook than when they entered, and often a willingness to look again at their beliefs and attitudes in relation to certain events.
This production might not achieve that, largely acting as an echo chamber for existing beliefs, and sits less comfortably with those who don’t share them.
But Ii’s certainly worth a visit, and a chance to make up your own mind.
More info and tickets here