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The Age: Johan Padan & the Discovery of the Americas

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See article in its original context here by Kathy Evans for The Age.

Dario Fo’s rollicking satire on New World encounters conveys a timely message about people power

History is usually written by the victors, which means intrepid stories of discovery are often whitewashed to make them more palatable for future generations.

Take Christopher Columbus, sailing the ocean blue and making friends with the natives amid a lush tropical setting. Six centuries later he’s embalmed as a hero of the Western World with his own national holiday, but Italian dramatist Dario Fo’s subversive play, Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas, casts him in an altogether much greyer light.

Using vivid wordscapes, the Nobel prize-winning satirist and playwright paints the New World as a place of ostracism, brutality and oppression where conquering Spaniards enslave, maim and kill the local “savages” with relish. They, in turn, think white man, with his God-fearing ways and suppressed desires, is much more interesting as a mouth-watering breakfast.

“It’s a big story, so hard to put into a nutshell,” says Melbourne actor Steve Gome, who is performing the one-man play with a cast of thousands for independent theatre company, Hoy Polloy at fortyfivedownstairs.

Gome first fell in love with Fo’s controversial play over a decade ago when he saw it performed at the Melbourne International Festival. “The colour, sounds and tastes are so evocative and I just became fascinated by it,” he recalls. An industrial officer at United Voice by day and actor by night, he spent many an evening poring over translations of the script, committing sections at a time to memory.


No wonder, because the story spans an adventurous 40 year arc, which sees Padan, loveable rogue and anti-hero, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition by stowing away on a ship captained by Columbus, bound for the Americas. On a return voyage it gets shipwrecked off the coast of Florida. Padan – ever the opportunist – is saved by his own remarkable ingenuity; he clings to a cargo pig because he knows they can sniff out dry land, and washes up ashore. What follows  is 100 rollicking minutes of satire and slap-stick as the play looks at the early encounters between Europeans and the indigenous people through a different lens, one which dares to imagine a peaceful coexistence between wildly different cultures based on humour, kindness and mutual respect.

Padan saves his own bacon so to speak by using charm and wit rather than violence and brute force to win the trust of the native people. He teaches them about the Catholic faith so the Spaniards won’t kill them; they, in turn, teach him some useful tricks — such as how to make love in a hammock. While he longs to return to “civilisation” he feels closer in spirit to the natives, who find the puritanical aspects of Christianity laughable. This particularly resonates with Gome, who spent time in the Kimberleys as a small child and remembers the indigenous children at his local school giggling during religious classes.

Not that Fo is given to moralising. Much of his work is inspired by the techniques of giullari, the medieval Italian court jesters, who knew better than to preach. Instead Fo’s views are steeped in an aesthetic that is marked by a comedy which, while bordering on buffoonery, is not afraid to cut deep.

Fo wrote the play in 1992 as an alternative to the official commemorations of Columbus’ voyage but it also reflects his own experiences in trying to navigate America. Due to his anti-government stances, he was denied a US visa throughout the 1970s and well into Reagan’s reign. It wasn’t until 1986 that the American Repertory Theatre successfully gained him entry to the land of the free.

Hoy Polloy director Wayne Pearn describes Gome as a “tour de force” in the role of Padan, “and everyone else,” which includes some 40,000 Spaniards, lovers and chiefs from indigenous tribes and a turkey to boot.

“It’s incredibly challenging from a physical point of view, as well as from a memory and concentration point of view but it’s delightful. As an actor, the more you put in, the more it keeps giving back to you,” notes Gome, who also spent a lot of time researching the colourful life of its creator, who at 88 remains a controversial character and political activist. Over the decades Fo has won both hatred and critical acclaim for his plays which, like Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas, use an unorthodox blend of comedy, tragedy and intimacy to explore deeply serious themes. Stories about corruption (Accidental Death of an Anarchist), theology (Mistero Buffo) and consumerism (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!) have blistered to life under his pen.

In many ways the character of Padan, irreverent, irascible yet big-hearted, feels autobiographical. Gome agrees: “I have felt that too. I think there is a lot of the spirit of Dario Fo in this character. I feel like I have got to know him through walking in his footsteps.”

While the story may be five hundred years old, its message has never been timelier, adds Pearn: “It’s about dispossession and oppression and how people-power, if well organised, can triumph without pulling a single trigger.”

Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas by Dario Fo ia at fortyfivedownstairs from February 4-15.

IMAGE: All at sea: Steve Gome plays the lead in Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas. PHOTO: Simon Schluter.

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