Review: Mistero Buffo (Underbelly, Edinburgh Fringe)

Rhum and Clay stage Dario Fo’s piece with a virtuosic performance at its heart

Mistero Buffo
Mistero Buffo
© Max Forsythe

Julian Spooner rocks up late, panting, and unpeels his silver-green Deliveroo jacket, prat-tumbling into his heat-keeping food-cube in the process. Dario Fo's lowly street entertainer has come straight from work – possibly for real – and suddenly, Mistero Buffo speaks straight to our world.

For 30 years, Fo performed this somersaulting solo himself. Written in 1969, and rooted in the medieval tradition of the jongleur, it retells a selection of New Testament tales – all of them centred on Jesus' miracles. Each comes twisted with blasphemy, backing the theological thinking that positions Jesus not as heaven-sent Son of God, but rather a charismatic holy man who built a cult following. He was, you might say, a populist prophet.

Spooner turns his Christ into a slick, self-regarding A-list superstar: cocksure as Tom Cruise, disarming as David Blaine. Howsoever he manages his miraculous feats, he pulls in the crowds like a self-appointed celeb. At Cana, having transformed water to wine, he drops fat drum and bass beats like a biblical DJ and, after he's raised Lazarus from the dead, a chant of Seven Nation Army rumbles through the crowd: "Wooo, Je-sus of Naz-ar-eth". "To me," Spooner's storyteller tells us, "he looked the same as any other man."

That blasphemous theological theory sits this Mistero Buffo in the realm of alternative facts – truths that go untold because they don't fit the mould. Ed Emery's authorised translation kicks off with a communion wafer: Christ's body or bread? Both are versions of the truth, and each hinges on belief. Theatre does too and, as Spooner conjures entire crowds on an empty stage, trees you can almost see, crucifixes with real weight, he makes clear how easy it is to believe in nothing.

This is, in short, a tour de force. Spooner, spinning between characters and sweating like a trooper, summons the spirit of Lee Evans as the lowly jongleur. It's a shapeshifting, body-popping, mesmerising performance; drilled to perfection, yet never stuck in routine. Fo's story seems to burst his body at the seams: too manifold for just one man to contain. Yet, as a woman cradling a lamb morphs into a soldier baring a gun, Spooner finds a commonality in oppositional forces: his Mistero Buffo calls for unity in divided times.

Nicholas Pitt's zippy production plays fast and loose with the 30 year-old script, peppering Emery's text with Pythonesque humour and pop cultural asides. He and Spooner shake up the script to bring it back to life, with Geoff Hense's lighting and Jon Ouin's sound adding a cartoonish zing.

Essentially, this is deeply unfashionable: a 50 year-old one man show about the life of Jesus Christ. It has no right to work, certainly not at the Fringe. That it does isn't just testament to Spooner's virtuosic turn, it's meaningful in its own right. Since its success comes from a crowd-pleasing performance, Rhum and Clay's staging becomes a subtle critique of populist politicians – those that take outmoded material and still carry the crowd. Watching this jongleur at play, you spot their techniques too: the restless energy of Donald J Trump, the blustering buffoonery of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage's bar-stool braggart, Jeremy Corbyn's lowly man of the people. That he winds up with blood on his hands sounds a sharp warning about the perils of playing to the crowd.

Mistero Buffo runs at Underbelly, Cowgate, at 19.20 until 26 August.

Read all our Edinburgh Festival coverage