Francis, the Holy Jester might just be the most lovingly presented show on the Fringe this year. Written by Nobel Prize-winning Italian author Dario Fo, and wonderfully translated into English and performed by his close associate Mario Pirovano, it recounts with energy and colour four events from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, he of 13th-century Doctor Doolittle fame.
Only one episode features those acclaimed animal communication skills, however. We learn more about Francis’ rabble-rousing speech to the Bolognese (people, not pasta sauce), his push to preach the gospels in the Italian vernacular and his trip to ask papal permission to set up the Franciscan community that exists to this day.
No need for set, props or special effects here. Pirovano is able to paint a Bellini Renaissance-style landscape with a sweep of the arm. And while there are moments when his own enthusiasm for the tale exceeds that of his audience, you can’t fault the passion at play. “It is important that you know this,” he says to us more than once.
It’s no Sunday school lesson either, with some of his jokes refreshingly unsaintly, blasphemous even, as when a frustrated Jesus shouts out, “For Christ’s sake!” mid-anecdote. And such irreverence only strengthens the poignant moments of the final chapter when Francis approaches death.
This gentle old-fashioned story is the sort that troubadours might have told in Francis’ own time. But when the Pope and future saint are quibbling over who’s the best narrator, you can’t help but point the finger at Pirovano himself.