No Pay? No Way No Pay? No Way. Photo: Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Michael Lavalette is full of praise for this play which highlights a history of action over rising prices and has many parallels for today

No Pay? No Way! is a fantastic, fast-paced, hard-hitting and hilarious version of Italian dramatists Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s Can’t Pay? Wont Pay! first performed in October 1974 in Milan.

The play is set in Italy in the early 1970s – but like all good Fo productions it is marked by its relevance to the present. The script is littered with contemporary politics and references to the multi-layer, contemporary crises confronting us today. The action is centred on rocketing food prices, rent spirals and increasing utilities bills and the struggles of working class people to pay for basic essentials at a time of growing inflation. This was the situation working class families found themselves confronting in Italy in 1974 – but, of course, it speaks to Britain and much of Europe today!

The background to the play is a series of what were called autoriduzione movements that took hold of Italy at the time. August 1969 is often referred to as Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’. There was an explosion of rank and file, working class militancy. Workers forced employers to concede significant wage rises, won union recognition agreements, the right to hold union meetings in work time, a reduction in the working week. In the big cities delegate factory councils were set up to coordinate action. Action directed at the bosses, of course, but increasingly also at the trade union leaders and bureaucracies who tried to limit the action and push it into constitutional directions.

Rank and file workers organised in the factories to ’reduce’ the speed of the production process, they went on rent strikes to reduce rents, and these self-organised events became known as ’autoriduzione.

But by 1974 the world had shifted and an employers’ offensive was underway. Inflation was intransigently high (often running at around 20%). As a consequence the Italian state pushed deflationary measures, which increased unemployment. Rents, food costs, energy costs, transport costs all increased significantly – and at this point there was the growth of ‘autoriduzione’ of consumers.

For example, in August 1974 workers at the FIAT factory in Turin were confronted by fare rises of between 20 and 50 per cent from private bus companies used to get the workers to the factories. The metal workers’ union elected ‘bus delegates’ who collected the ‘old’ price of the fare and sent this to the companies! In Piedmont the electricity workers’ union organised to ‘pay’ customers’ bills at the pre-increase rate (about 50% less than they had been charged). They gave an undertaking that no-one taking part in the process would be cut off!

And ‘autoriduzione’ was also practiced by working class women – coming together and refusing to pay the exorbitant costs of basic food stuff like milk, bread, pasta and meat.

Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! is set against the background of autoriduzione and, in particular, a case of working-class women, liberating food to feed their families. It follows the story of Antonia and Margherita who are involved in liberating food. – and the absurd measures they take to hide the food from the cops, and their husbands. Their husbands are Luigi (a young militant worker) and Giovanni, an older worker committed to ‘constitutionalism’ (at the time a very clear dig, by Fo and Rame, at the official politics of the PCI – the Italian Communist Party).

This is a Fo/Rame play so comedy, laughter and absurdism are all to the fore. The actors deliver their fast-paced lines with ease and the laughs come thick and fast. This version, playing at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, is based on Marieke Hardy’s adaption that was first performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2020 to great reviews. In this version Antonia and Margherita are given very strong roles and Hardy’s adaption speaks much more clearly to issues of women’s oppression than the original.

There is also an interesting ‘interruption’ in the second half of the play when one of the cast (Anwar Russell) comes forward as the Equity rep to tell the audience that some of the production team have taken the play too literally and have – in the spirit of the present – gone on strike (cue striker with banner marching across the stage demanding a reduction in the working week!)

And the play ends with the cast – and audience – joining in a rousing rendition of Bella Ciao

No Pay? No Way! is at the Royal Exchange until 10th June. If you are in the north west – or can easily get to Manchester – do yourself a favour and have a night at the theatre taking in this wonderful version of a great play!

No Pay? No Way!, a new version of the Dario Fo and Franca Rame play (originally called Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!), adapted by Marieke Hardy, is currently on at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre running from 12 May to 10 June.

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