See article in its original context here by Tim Byrne for Johan Padan & the Discovery of the Americas.
Pigs float, if not fly, in this wacky tale of discovery and adventure
Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo is not as widely performed in Australia as he should be. One of the world’s leading exponents of agitprop, he has rankled the establishment in Italy for decades, lampooning the Church and ridiculing those in power. Perhaps Fo’s relevance has diminished as his targets have fallen into humiliations of their own making. Nowadays, no one believes the emperor is wearing clothes.
Fo’s response to the quincentennial celebrations of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas,Johan Padan is a highly resonant and action-packed monologue, originally performed by Fo himself but here given life by Steve Gome under strong direction by Wayne Pearn.
Padan is a wily and resourceful narrator; an escapee from the Spanish Inquisition, he hitches a ride to the New World on one of Columbus’s ships. Surviving a shipwreck on the back of a floating pig, he eventually befriends, after narrowly avoiding being eaten by, a tribe of native Americans. With a bit of trickery and a hell of a lot of luck, he manages to become their holy man, and leads them to victory in a battle with the Spanish conquistadors in Florida.
Fo uses this tall tale as a direct affront to the ideologies of Church and Empire, the former hilariously sent up in a blasphemous bible lesson and the latter mercilessly mocked throughout. Padan himself functions much like a medieval japester, a genial but potent subversive, agitating at the fringes of history like a banished court jester.
Gome is terrific in the role. His energy never flags, but he also controls the shifts and digressions with the ease of a consummate storyteller. He has a cheeky, likable presence, and throws his whole body into the role. Pearn guides him well, navigating what is really an epic prose poem with skill and nuance, creating the sensation of a well-told fireside fable. I could have done without the direct mention of Indigenous Australians in the prologue, which makes overt a resonance the audience should be allowed to discover for itself.
Fo’s work is so steeped in the traditions of commedia dell’arte that it often seems strained and unfunny in an Australian context. While Hoy Polloy’s production is amusing and consistently engaging, it doesn’t quite resolve the problem of playing style, and the targets of this piece feel somewhat removed and arcane. Perhaps a home-grown playwright needs to emerge who can tackle the sacred cows of Australian history with the rebelliousness and subversion Dario Fo brings to the history of the Americas.