THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR by Nikolai Gogol
Jack Studio Theatre, 21 – 25 August 2018
‘highly recommended for fans of the ridiculous, the comic, and the painfully true.’ ★★★★
The strength of a classic is often judged in its universality. Namely, how well the work stands up to adaptation and re-adaptation, from era to era, and place to place. This is why Akira Kurosawa was able to stage Macbeth in Feudal Japan and why Christopher McElroen was able to stage Waiting for Godot in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. A classic, even if written in response to a specific social and cultural context, can be made relevant to new settings, because its ideas, themes, and story have universal qualities that we can all recognise and relate to – regardless of time or place.
The Government Inspector is no different. In Paula Chitty’s superb adaptation, Gogol’s classic satire of corruption in Imperial Russia is transplanted to a provincial Yorkshire town during the Winter of Discontent. This new staging demonstrates, perhaps regrettably, that venality and buffoonery among elected officials will always be ripe for comedy and will always be relevant – whether in 19th Century Russia or 1970s Northern England. Indeed, given the country’s current predicament, a story about small-minded people being duped by a charlatan is also painfully topical in ways that should not require further elaboration.
Laughs abound in this farcical comedy of mistaken identities and exploited ignorance. The story follows a local council Chairman who, learning that a government inspector has been sent to investigate the town, alerts fellow community officials to be on their guard. When they learn of a strange newcomer with fancy dress, they immediately assume he is the inspector, and go to great lengths to appease him, not knowing that their bribes are only going to line his pockets, rather than save their skins.
The ensemble cast are note perfect, and feature characters ranging from a leering deputy (Richard Willmott), a bumbling post office head, Tommy (Robert Mclachlan) to bickering property dealers Black and Jack (Elizabeth George and Richard Houghton-Evans). Bernard O’Sullivan is particularly fearsome and yet utterly foolish as the put-upon Chairman, trying desperately to cover up his iniquities while blaming everyone around him. Fiona Vivian is similarly excellent as his sweetly innocent daughter, an unfortunate victim amidst the schemes of both her father and the eponymous ‘inspector’ Norman, who is played with entertaining smugness by Jack Blue, and well-supported by the winning snark of John Stivey as his travelling companion Osip.
The Government Inspector is a well-judged and inventive reimagining of a classic satire that, despite its period setting, has just as much relevancy for the present moment as the one it is sending up. The world of the play is ruled over by a kakistocracy of crooks and boobs, just as recognisable now as it was then, and comes highly recommended for fans of the ridiculous, the comic, and the painfully true.
Reviewer Alex Hayward is a playwright, poet and author of short fiction. Raised in the West Country, Alex moved to London to pursue an MA in literature at Queen Mary University of London and has not left since. His plays deal with themes of nationalism, trauma, and the limits of idealism. @alexwhayward
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