(This review appeared in the East African (November 15-21 2010) under the title Pirovano Is Perfect as “God’s Jester”)
The Italian actor Mario Pirovano was in Nairobi last month- courtesy of the Italian Cultural Institute- performing his English translation of Francis The Holy Jester by Nobel laureate Dario Fo, which has received critical acclaim since his first performance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009.
This is one of those performances that are very difficult to describe- one of those you have to have seen for yourself.
The performance shed a new light on one of the most venerated saints- not just in the Catholic Church but in many other churches and Christian communities including the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal and the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America and the Evangelical Church of Germany.
Forty years after the death of the saint, Bonaventura di Bagnoregio, being appointed to write St Francis’s official biography, ordered the destruction of all previous writings on the life of the saint.
However, several documents from various witnesses around Europe have survived, which Dario Fo has used as the basis for his research to come up with his text, which recounts various events in the life of St Francis, in four episodes.
The first story was about the wolf that terrorised the people of Gubbio, followed by the one where St Francis preached to the birds, then the one where he travels to Rome to ask Pope Innocent III for permission to preach the gospel in the language of the people instead of Latin, and start a holy order.
This third story begins with the narration of how some friends asked Saint Francis to tell a story to a wedding party, to cheer up the guests. Francis then told the story of the wedding at Cana. A friend of his, a priest, informed him that he would be in trouble with the Holy Inquisition for preaching the gospel in a language other than Latin, hence the trip to Rome.
The final story recounts the death of the saint, in his favourite abode, the Porziuncola, singing Psalm 141.
Fo discovered from his research that the title ‘jester’ is not one that had been attributed to St Francis by “someone of great imagination and subtle humour”. Francis himself declared, “I am God’s jester.”
In Italy, due to the political and economic crisis of the time, jesters started travelling in groups performing plays featuring stock characters like Arlecchino (Harlequin) and this became a type of drama called the commedia dell’arte.
Needless to say, the political satire presented by these comedians did not please the ruling elite. Thus, in 1220, Frederick II of Swabia (of the Hohenstaufen family, who were also the Holy Emperors of Rome- a title given by the Pope) issued a law called the Contra Joculatores Obloquentes, which decreed that all ‘disgraceful’ jesters should be beaten and even killed if found speaking in public places.
Despite this, St Francis still delivered his famous harangue, in Bologna in the summer of 1222. In his speech, instead of reprimanding the people of Bologna, he ‘praised’ them for being so astute at fighting wars and shedding so much blood and for the Crusade in Jerusalem, where six thousand people died, to which he added, “six thousand new graves, to save one empty grave.” The people of Bologna saw the irony in his speech and called for a truce with their enemies.
With the captivating skill of a true storyteller, Pirovano transported his audience into the European middle ages at the height of the papal power and the crusades, when the Christian armies invaded the Middle East to recapture the holy land. This was a time that was rife with bloodshed in the name of God and this history- little taught in our schools- has led to misinformed opinions between Christian denominations and between Christianity and Islam.
The performance brought to life fascinating characters like St Francis, the nasty wolf of Gubbio, and the Cardinal Bishop of Sabina (who was in such good terms with the Pope, he could call him ‘Innocent’ without saying ‘the third’) daintily holding his robe as he went down an imaginary spiral staircase at the end of which he had to do a half turn in the opposite direction to stop himself from spinning.
Through the performance, we encountered St Francis, a man set to serve God amidst the turmoil around him, as the Pope, princes and feudal families struggled for power, yet, it was not a sermon.
©Anne W. Manyara 2010