“And all because I met a naked ambas­sador…”

Theatre of Heaven & Hell are a company who describe themselves as an ensemble “dedicated to producing absurdist plays and reviving forgotten gems”.[1] This is an admirable ambition, especially given the state of the world right now, and their current production of Dario Fo’s One Was Nude & One Wore Tails is a great example of the value in bringing often forgotten plays back to life on the stage. The intimate Hen & Chickens Theatre is also a perfect fit for the show as it keeps the audience feeling close to the events the play, and enables us to be carried along by the pace of this absurdist farce in the same way as the characters on the stage.[2] This production offers a rare chance to see an obscure play performed in a great venue and is not to be missed for fans of absurdist theatre.

Dario Fo, the Italian playwright most well known for Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970), sadly shuffled off this mortal coil in October last year, making now an appropriate time for companies such as Theatre of Heaven & Hell to bring one of his lesser known works to a wider audience. Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, and the official website of the Nobel Prize describes him as a person “who emulate[d] the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”;[3] One Was Nude & One Wore Tails is a great example of a play that does exactly this, and at the same time contains a great deal of comedy in its absurd events.

One Was Nude & One Wore Tails charts a series of bizarre events that befall a road sweeper one day as he is going about his work. A colleague engages our hero in a philosophical discussion and convinces him, by applying some farcical logic to the ideas of Plato, that nothingness is “the beginning of everything […] the absolute”, and therefore that to be nothing – as the hero of this story believes himself to be in his current profession – is in fact to be God. With his newly discovered divinity, this road sweeper helps a naked man (who he believes to be an ambassador) acquire a tailcoat and evening dress, but goes on to find out that when he himself wears this upper class regalia and assumes the role of ambassador he is treated far better by his fellow citizens than when sporting his road sweeper overalls. This realisation launches him into an existential spiral, as, by becoming an ambassador in the eyes of others, he ceases to be nothing, which puts his recently discovered divinity in jeopardy.

The chemistry between our road sweeper protagonist (Nicholas Bright) and the naked “ambassador” (Darren Rusten), combined with excellent direction from Michael Ward, creates brilliant moments of comedy that sustain the momentum of this philosophical farce. Fo’s script provides a rich source of intricate comic word play through the farcical conversations played out within it, and Theatre of Heaven & Hell’s production complements these by creating some genuinely hilarious slapstick moments and visual puns to add some dynamism to the play’s dialogue.

Written in Italian in the late 1950s, L’uomo nudo e l’uomo in frak (One Was Nude and One Wore Tails) falls squarely within the Theatre of the Absurd. The play’s focus on a character at the bottom of society who associates himself with the concept of nothingness certainly has a Beckettian feel to it. Parallels can easily be drawn between the road sweepers’ philosophical discussion and the dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon in the Waiting for Godot, and further to other notable exchanges in the history of absurdist theatre, such as the two hit-men in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. In terms of the setting, One Was Nude and One Wore Tails even prominently features a character in a bin, which is reminiscent of Nagg and Nell in Beckett’s Endgame. However, the comedy Fo brings to his absurdism is more overt than that found in Beckett and Pinter, and it is in the creation of the farcical moments around the central character’s existential musings that the true strength of this little-known play lies.

In addition to the two central characters, the supporting cast of Brian Eastty (Road sweeper / Patrolman), Elena Clements (Woman), and Jake Francis (Man in Evening Dress) all perform their parts ably and contribute to the comedy of this production. However, it is unfortunate that these actors don’t have much to work with in the script: the naming of Clements’ part simply as “Woman” stands particularly as an indicator of how under-developed Fo left these characters. There are some good comedic moments created when these roles are properly integrated into the farce, particularly the initial philosophical conversation, and the scene in which Man in Evening Dress is convinced to give up the outfit that defines his character; but it would be fair to say that the amount One Was Nude & One Wore Tails rests on its two primary characters at the expense of the others is surely one reason it never achieved the prominence of some of Fo’s other work, or indeed other notable pieces of absurdist theatre. But this is more of a reason to go and see this production than to avoid it, as the play’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses: this is a highly entertaining and thought provoking hour of theatre, well performed by a company who specialise in the absurd, and – on top of this – opportunities to see this work performed will probably remain scarce in future years.

In their programme notes for this production, Theatre of Heaven & Hell write, “Fo’s characters are as relevant today as when he first created them. In these turbulent political times, his satirical voice can still be heard shouting out a warning against all those that would use power to control and suppress the common man (and woman)”. It is hard to disagree with this assessment, and One Was Nude & One Wore Tails is both an exemplar of this relevant political message, and a genuinely entertaining absurdist farce which you are unlikely to be able to see elsewhere; you are certainly unlikely to see it this well performed.

One was Nude & One Wore Tails will be running at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until the 18th March. You can buy tickets here.

[1] http://www.theatreofheavenandhell.com/about

[2] The Hen & Chickens Theatre is nestled atop a pub within sight of Highbury & Islington tube station and is a great (and comfortable) venue for fringe theatre which is definitely worth returning to for shows beyond this production. More info: http://www.thehenandchickenstheatrebar.co.uk/

[3] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1997/