He may still be thought of as fat, jolly and jolly fat, but, argues Robbie Coltrane,
his acting range is at least as wide as his waistband. Stuart Bathgate asks this giant among men about his biggest live challenge to date, Dario Fo’s
His voice is so rich you could be talking to a Christmas pudding. His girth does not detract from the impression. Yet even for so commanding a figure as Robbie Coltrane, Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo, about to be brought to Glasgow by Borderline Theatre , presents a severe challenge. Coltrane is the only actor. There are twenty-six characters. No costume changes.
He has, at least, had time to contemplate the task ahead. ‘I saw Dario Fo do it five years ago, and thought it was wonderful. I saw it with Emma Thompson, and she said ‘You should do this’. But we had to think about getting it translated. And at the same time, Morag (Fullarton, Borderline’s director), had had exactly the same idea and had it translated, then phoned me up and asked me to do it. So it was one of these coincidences.’
Fo first began performing the play in Italian workers‘ clubs in 1969, adapting the tales of medieval strolling players to modern social and political circumstances. Unlike the officially sanctioned Mystery Plays, which sought to reaffirm the social hierarchy, these ‘comic mysteries’ were ribald rewritings of Gospel stories, spoken in local dialect, and often more concerned with ridiculing the rich than spreading the good word. But, for all that, Christ is depicted as being firmly on the side of the poor; as, if you like, the original liberation theologist.
Before performing each piece, the narrator explains its origins. This story-teller, says Coltrane, ‘isn’t exactly a religious character, he’s just an ordinary guy. The play doesn’t have a point of view religiously, except how religion has been mucked around by the organised church. And in that sense it’s a very truthful piece, and a very religious piece, I think. It’s what Christianity should be about. It’s what it is about. once you get rid of all the rubbish surrounding it.‘
Central to that message is the figure ofthc jongleur, who, in medieval times, would harangue crowds and lambast the authorities
so ferociously that persecution inevitably followed: not a few jongleurs were strung up for their pains. ln Fo‘s text, it is the jongleur who encapsulates the attitude of the comic mysteries when he says: ‘Gather round, people! lam going to play a satire for you. lam going to joust with the lord of the land, for he is a great balloon, and I am going to burst him with the sharpness of my tongue. These rulers must be broken, they must be crushed!’
In keeping with the spirit of Fo’s work, Borderline have updated Mistero Buffo to include topical references: the ﬂyposter for the play depicts, among other well-loved figures such as Thatcher and the Ayatollah, Ian Paisley and the Pope in fraternal embrace. For Coltrane , the comic mysteries are clearly relevant today. ‘The irony is,’ he says, ‘that the criticisms there were of the organised church in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries were the ones there still are now. Like priests who say maybe you shouldn’t have to live in high-rise blocks, then get accused of being Communists. “The man’s a Communist. he doesn’t believe there should be poor people”,’ he says, apeing an outraged Tory grandee.
This attempt to expose the crimes of the powerful is a leitmotiv of Coltrane’s career, stretching back to his first, virtually unknown film, made in 1973, which sounds, in essence, like Dead Poets Society set in less genteel surroundings. ‘The school-leaving age had recently been raised to 16, largely to launder the unemployment figures. Young Mental Classroom was a documentary about what it was like to be 15 and living in Pilton. It was really about a guy who was teaching them. [don’t know what he’s doing now, but I always remember one bit of the film. The kids were doing a pollution test of the Forth. At that time you could still eat your mussels in Musselburgh, whereas now of course they‘re about the most lethal thing imaginable. We got these tests of the water and then we’d phone the manager of the company and there were all these wee mental gadgies fi
Pilton and they‘d say “See the levels of potassium sulphate coming out your taps mate, it’s a bloody disgrace”.’
This populist approach to politics, allied to his image as a hard-drinking, fast-living Rabelaisian rabble-rouser, has led to Coltrane’s adoption as a symbol of all that is defiantly Scottish. When Billy Connolly went off to kowtow to the English crown, Coltrane assumed, for many admirers, the role of honorary standard-bearer to the Tartan Army, an on-tap trasher of the Southern Babylon.
If the over-publicised Hogmanay fiasco in George Square, when he delivered the joke that spanned two decades, leads to a temporary decline in popularity for Coltrane, that may be no bad thing. While Connolly was initially execrated for deserting his native city and the people who gave him his success, he now seems to have greater scope to do what he wants, without having to worry about conforming to a role in which he felt increasingly uncomfortable. Similarly, the adverse reaction to the Hogmanay show might well allow Coltrane to escape from what people have decided he stands for.
‘The only plan I‘ve ever made for my career is not to get pigeon-holed,’ he says. ‘l‘ve worked very hard on
5 The List 9 — 22 February 1990