Review: Mistero Buffo (Rhum + Clay, Metro Arts & Brisbane Festival)

Julian Spooner in Mistero Buffo. Image credit Luke Forsyth

Rhum + Clay’s production of Dario Fo’s controversial solo work, Mistero Buffo, played a sold-out season at Metro Arts for Brisbane Festival 2022, featuring a masterful physical theatre performance by Julian Spooner.

With the title loosely translating to The Comic Mysteries, Fo’s provocative piece is a series of monologues that retell or relate to Biblical events and themes, with a focus on the miracles performed by Jesus Christ. Rhum + Clay’s production, which uses the authorised English translation of the work by Ed Emery, premiered in 2018 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and includes a selection of these monologues, centred on a few key events in the life of Jesus: the slaughter of innocents ordered by King Herod at his birth; the wedding at Cana, where he transformed water into wine; the resurrection of Lazarus; and the crucifixion. All of these were used to illustrate points about power and inequality, truth and justice, and honour and hypocrisy, as well as touching on the violence that would be enacted in Jesus’ name, counter to his teachings, by people who wished to contort his message to justify their actions.

Julian Spooner in Mistero Buffo. Image credit Luke Forsyth

Written by Italian playwright Dario Fo and performed across Europe, Canada, and Latin America for 30 years, Mistero Buffo is recognised as one of the most controversial and popular spectacles in post-war European theatre; a televised performance was denounced by the Vatican as “the most blasphemous show in the history of television”. Fo’s citation for the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature noted that he “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. Despite not being familiar with Fo’s work, it was easy to draw this comparison in seeing Mistero Buffo, as the work’s narrator was introduced as a jongleur – a medieval itinerant minstrel – who had been visited by Christ.

Julian Spooner in Mistero Buffo. Image credit Luke Forsyth

Directed by Nicholas Pitt, who also did additional writing for the piece, Rhum + Clay’s Mistero Buffo reframes the narrator as a Deliveroo driver. Although the link between an itinerant storyteller and a delivery driver was tenuous, it was not embedded in the story deeply enough to grate. The selected monologues were also modernised in small ways – Herod’s soldiers carried guns, and the admission price for the resurrection of Lazarus was adjusted. While these changes were small, they sharpened the edge of the social commentary for a modern audience.

Julian Spooner proved himself to be a master of physical theatre in performing this tightly-packed, fast-paced solo show, embodying dozens of characters and conjuring locations throughout the 90 minutes with remarkable energy. Spooner commanded the stage, empty except for the discarded Deliveroo bag, and built an easy, conversational rapport with the audience from the moment he entered. There were no costume changes, short of shrugging off the Deliveroo jacket, but Spooner crafted each individual character with incredible skill and precision, transforming his voice and movement with split-second timing and transitioning seamlessly between characters, scenes, and intense emotions.

Julian Spooner in Mistero Buffo. Image credit Luke Forsyth

Music and sound design by Jonathan Ouin included electronic music, as well as soundscapes that contributed to the setting on the otherwise empty stage, working in tandem with lighting design by Geoff Hense. Costume design by Emily Bates mixed modern and medieval, with hi-top sneakers and a poet blouse in addition to the recognisable Deliveroo jacket and bag.

First performed in 1969, Mistero Buffo still resonated in the modern world as it speaks to truth, power, justice, and inequality. An enormous undertaking by a skilful, well-rehearsed performer, Rhum + Clay’s Mistero Buffo is sure to spark conversations long after the applause has died down.

Mistero Buffo will play at Metro Arts, West End, from 13 – 18 September 2022.

For ticketing and further information, visit the Brisbane Festival website

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