Writer: Nikolai Gogol, adapted by David Harrower
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: James Garrington
“More clouds of grey than any Russian play could guarantee.”
Lyricist Ira Gershwin pretty much summed up the popular view of Russian drama when he wrote those words: dour, grey and downright depressing. Anyone who thinks that describes Russian theatre in its entirety, though, has clearly never seen The Government Inspector, which is a laugh from start to finish.
The mayor of a small, provincial Russian town is very worried. He has discovered that a Government Inspector is coming to town, to review everything that goes on – which is a problem, as the courthouse is full of animals, the army has no trousers, and the church he has been given money to build got no further than a single wall. Furthermore, he and his army of bureaucrats are all rather fond of taking the odd bribe here and there. When it is revealed that a stranger from St Petersburg, who seems to have his eyes everywhere, has been staying at the inn for two weeks, everyone realises that this must be the man they fear. Clearly the only solution is bribery – but are they bribing the right man?
Nikolai Gogol’s play is both very witty and sharply satirical, and although written in 1836 remains relevant today. After all, which public servant doesn’t have at least a twinge of concern over an inspection by “the man from the ministry”? In The Government Inspector everything is fair game – officials happy to take and receive bribes, social hierarchies, and people foolishly seeing what they want to see, in an almost Emperor’s New Clothes manner.
Then there is the cast, who are universally superb. Ramps on the Moon is a project which aims to integrate disabled and non-disabled performers and practitioners into mainstream productions: that is precisely what has been done in The Government Inspector, and hugely successful it is too. The production uses a mixture of spoken word, surtitles, video projection and signing to great effect, where there is always someone on the stage signing – not tucked away in the corner like in a traditional signed performance, but bouncing around different actors, as part of the action and business. If you think that sounds distracting, it really isn’t. Not at all. In fact, one of the joys of the production is the way it uses the different disabilities to create more humour, and the cast members seem to take great delight in sending themselves up. So you get a wheelchair user being tipped out, someone with a speech impairment insisting they tell the story as their colleague doesn’t speak properly, a person of short stature having to jump to kiss someone, and so on.
Among the array of good performances on stage, there is a number that stand out. David Carlyle’s excellent mayor is at the centre of the action, initially panic-stricken as he tries to find ways of covering up the shortcomings in the town, then happy to be totally taken in by Khlestakov, the visitor from St Petersburg (Robin Morrissey) – who himself delights in all the things that are being thrown at him. Stephen Collins and Rachel Denning make a visually absurd and absolutely delightful pairing as landowners Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, who despite their estates seem to have less money than the officials. Then there’s Jean St Clair as Lyapkin-Tyapkin, the Judge, who can only communicate using BSL; this brings a wonderful scene where she is left alone with Khlestakov – “I don’t speak sign,” he says, waving his arms about wildly as he tries to make himself understood. Most memorable though, must be the two ladies in the mayor’s family. His daughter Maria (Francesca Mills) is gloriously wide-eyed with fascination and literally jumping with excitement for the visitor, yet nicely petulant when being told what to do. Meanwhile, the mayor’s wife Anna (Kiruna Stamell) has ideas of her own, with some cutting put-downs and great comic timing as she attempts to appear sophisticated.
Full of physical comedy and beautifully written, it’s an absolute delight. Don’t miss it.
Runs until 26 March 2016 and on tour | Image: Robert Day