Choosing Medea as a double bill with 'A Mother' is an obvious fit. Although Medea was originally performed as one of four one-woman plays entitled 'Female Parts', at the National Theatre in London in 1981, it still feels wholly relevant today.
Back in 1981, the translator Stuart Hood described in his introduction to the play that "In performance there is produced in the audience a kind of astonishment which finds its expression in laughter but behind which is the shock of recognition: this is how women are, in our society this is how they are treated". And the feminist politics still resonate in a post-feminist world today.
While Franca Rame's version of Medea takes its cue from the Euripides' tragedy, a very different message comes through in this production. Franca Rame is interested in the sexual politics, and almost puts the tragedy to one side, as we see Medea struggle with her position of being left by Jason for the younger woman, and where that leaves her in modern society, how she is viewed as an ageing mother, and how both men and women have conspired to cause her position in society. Children are hung round the neck of women: "like a heavy wooden yoke that makes us easier to milk and easier to mount", as she rails against divorce, the selfishness of men, the so-called sisterhood, and the suffering of women left alone with the children.
As the play heads towards its ultimate sacrifice, Medea realises that she still has power over her ex-husband, in the twisted fantasy of infanticide. It is the idea of the sacrifice of her children, and the empowerment that it would bring, that allows the new woman to be born. The audience is left gasping, will she or won't she carry it through?
How would it feel to be a mother of a terrorist?
With Dario Fo and Franca Rame's play, 'A Mother', written 2 years after the performance of Medea, a very topical issues is explored - that of terrorism. It’s hard to believe that ‘A Mother’ was written more than 35 years ago when it still hisses with the same political urgency today.
Despite the credit for the piece attributed to Dario Fo first, this is a play that comes very much from the heart of his wife and fellow author Franca Rame. She drew blood for this play, literally, as the context below shows, and Dario Fo came to devote his nobel prize awarded in 1997 to his wife in recognition of all the blood, sweat and tears she shed to make their body of work together so great.
Back in 1982, when ‘Una Madre’ was first staged, authors Franca Rame and Dario Fo were seen as ‘political undesirables’, unable to even enter America because of the underlying message of their work. In their own country Italy, they were unable to find a landlord to rent them a room in Milan, or a theatre prepared to have their licence revoked by staging a play as hot as, say, “Accidental death of an Anarchist”.
Rame had nailed her political sympathies to the mast by joining the Communist party in 1967, while Fo had stood by her side, and their views clashed with a neo-Fascist campaign in Italy. This campaign would be building on the many fascists still left in power after the Mussolini war years, who were reluctant to allow different voices to speak out. What wasn’t ever made explicit, except through the works of Rame and Fo, was how far the right would go in their quest to silence opposition, whether pushing opponents out of windows or torturing them in vans. Rame and Fo were writing about it in dramatic monologues and theatre pieces, but the truth that was to take a further 25 years to come out – that the Senior police officers and the government were implicated in what was to happen next to Franca Rame.
In 1973, the playwright and actor Franca Rame, was kidnapped off a Milan street bundled into a van in broad daylight, slashed with razor blades, burnt with cigarettes and gang-raped before being dumped, bleeding, in a public park. It was a horrific, brutal attack that was meant to silence her and the left-wing sympathisers, sending parcels to political prisoners in custody, and funding defence lawyers.
Rame and Fo always suspected that the violent act of terrorism came from the top, the government, as well as the police, despite it being seen as a neo-fascist terrorists. In either instance, the police and authorities tacitly, if not overtly, turned a blind eye to the atrocity, failing to investigate it properly. Rame was back on the stage two months later in defiance of the regime, but carried the wounds of trauma deep within her.
They knew that the kidnapping and rape came from the top, but it took a further 25 years to be proved right, after Dario Fo’s nobel laureate and Rame’s death. However, the forceful and powerful truth-telling of their writing sheds light on such dark and twisted abuse of power. In spite of her savage experience, Rame remained unbroken, and unashamed to ask the questions that nobody wanted to ask. She saw violence as a form of unacceptable control in anyone’s hands, and in her playwriting, she demanded that the audience leave the room changed by the honesty of what they have seen.
The same year that Rame wrote Una Madre ‘A mother’, she also wrote ‘Lo Stupro’ The rape, to tell her story of that brutal day when she was kidnapped. So shocking was the monologue, that a number of people fainted during the performance and had to be carried out.
While Una Madre ‘A mother’, was often performed alongside Lo stupor ‘The rape’ – it doesn’t tread the expected path of denouncing the terrorist within it. Rame draws you into a dilemma, calling for you to imagine yourself as a mother of a terrorist, and then unexpectedly offers you a different view of what is going on behind closed doors of court hearings, custody and prison. Suddenly, the spectre of political prisoners comes to the fore, people stripped of their human rights, beaten, moved into different prisons, denied family visits – dehumanised by a system that turns a blind eye. It’s nod to the political prisoners that She tried to support with food parcels and offers of defence counsel, because they were abused by a government wedded to violence and control.
What is also clear is that ‘terrorism’ is a subject where there is no debate, the conversation goes in only one direction – the government’s viewpoint. Extremism, whether religious or political, must be stamped out by the government, with parents, teachers, and police today in the UK all trained by the government’s PREVENT strategy. But there is not understanding of the irony in the lengths the government will go to ‘stamp it out’, whether shooting innocent victims who may have been deemed to be terrorists (Jean Charles Menezes), or arming police as they control marches. Violent means often lead to violent ends. Is it only to protect the public, or is it to also keep control?
These are the kind of uncomfortable questions which still need to be asked today. Just because terrorism is too loaded a topic to tackle, doesn’t mean that we should follow the expected line.
This is why the work of Franca Rame still has currency today. Take nothing on face value, not even a mother’s love for a child. As long as violence is allowed to exist unchecked, it will beget further violence. If we really believe that values such as peace, kindness, compassion and tolerance are the four corners of our society, then we have to act to make them happen.
That Rame continued to act, and write, in the face of such a violent and personal attack on herself is our gain, even today.
To watch the performance of ‘A mother’ to be staged at the 2019 Edinburgh fringe is to leave the room unsettled, shaken up, unsure of what is acceptable. And yet through it all, the author’s strength, determination and ability to shine a light on what is really important, honesty and truth-telling, comes through. Rame’s fight is as relevant today as it was 35 years’ ago.
By producer Emma Mahony
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Below: Dario Fo, their son Jacopo, and writer/actor Franca Rame
Funding terrorism: the mother of Jihadi Jack
On 23 June 2019, Sally Lane and John Letts left the Old Bailey in London, with a jail sentence of 15 months, suspended for one year, for sending their son ‘Jihadi Jack’ money. The charge was ‘funding terrorism’ although the money was a few hundred pounds.
Outside court, a statement from the parents read by their lawyer said “We are committed to helping Jack return home and we will continue our campaign to help those that the government has turned its back on”. “We have been convicted of doing what any parent would do if they thought their child were in danger”.
How much of their descent into criminality was about reclaiming their son from an ideology that they had allowed him to explore willingly? Jack lived in leafy Oxfordshire, and yet had decided to attend a mosque and convert to Islam at 16, and the parents attempted to support his new religious leanings. What should they have done – kicked him out of the house? Does sending him an airfare home really count as ‘funding terrorism”, when governments are doing business daily through corporate funding and arms deals on a financial scale far bigger than any parents’ offer of an airfare home.
Taking the government line, Commmander Dean Haydorn, head of the Met policy counter terrorism command made it clear that relatives would feel the full force of the law if they attempted to go against the law in a separate case when a couple faced jail at the Old Bailey after sending a nephew £219 for what they thought was ‘nursing training’. “Any amount of cash sent to terrorists is money which is enabling them to further their hatred and carry out attacks on innocent people", he is reported as saying in the Independent newspaper.
In many ways, Franca Rame is asking us in Una Madre ‘A Mother’ to look at the helplessness of the individual against the might of the state. In her final nightmarish descent – she does the unthinkable. But perhaps the unthinkable is happening all the time, every day, in the very prisons and government departments that are there to protect the many from the few. This is the unpalatable truth that Rame asks us to “imagine” from the very first line of the play. Don’t just toe the party line, don’t accept the politics of those who govern you, question, challenge, humanise the de-humanised world of power.
Violence is violence whoever wreaks it, Rame suggests in ‘A Mother’. And in a violent world, we mustn’t be fooled by those pointing a finger at others. The government ministers, senior police officers, judges and prison wardens may have just as much blood on their hands as those angry young teenagers or terrorists – or their parents – that they have just locked up.
By producer Emma Mahony