Writer: Nikolai Gogol adapted by David Harrower
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Stephen Brennan
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in association with Ramps on the Moon, presents an innovative and accessible adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. A skilled ensemble of actors tells the story of a remote Russian town nervously awaiting the arrival of an inspector from St. Petersburg. When a case of mistaken identity leads to events spiralling out of control, the officials resort to the only thing they can think of: bribery.
What sets this production apart from other adaptations is the thought that has been given to making it accessible to all audiences. While many theatrical productions offer subtitled, signed or audio-described performances, these can often feel like afterthoughts with the performance interpreter pushed to the side of stage detached from the action. In The Government Inspector, however, these elements are integral to the storytelling. Interpreters Becky Barry and Daryl Jackson are not just there to relay information to the audience, but instead are central to the action taking place, interacting and engaging with the rest of the cast throughout. In the wrong hands, this could feel jarring and gimmicky but director Roxana Silbert has a deftness of touch that means that not only does the use of British Sign Language feel natural but it also enhances the comedy of the piece. In particular, a sequence between Jean St. Clair as Judge Lyapkin-Tyapkin and Robin Morrissey as the roguish Khlestakov that hinges on the inability to interpret sign language is a master class of physical comedy.
Indeed, the physicality of the piece is where it really comes alive. From the striking opening image of the townsfolk “cooking the books” the choreography of the ensemble is consistently excellent, conveying both the unity and enmity they feel for one another in a series of stylised motifs. The individual performances also make great use of physicality with David Carlyle as The Mayor a particular stand-out. His physical tics and nervous, rambling delivery paint a portrait of a man desperate to be seen as a likeable figure while constantly manipulating things to achieve his own ends. Carlyle’s natural comic timing is a joy to watch and he comfortably carries the opening scenes of the play.
Unfortunately, while the comedy is good, it’s also where the production falters. Part of the problem is that having such a large ensemble, some characters and plot threads feel under-developed leading some comic moments to fall flat. The shopkeepers dislike of The Mayor and the officials’ fear of ramifications from St. Petersburg, do not resonate in the way they should and undermine the main story being told. Similarly, certain characters feel under-used- the excellent Michael Keane as Osip is and a delight to watch and steals every scene he’s inbut does not appear nearly enough.
The Government Inspector is not a perfect production by any means, but it is an engaging and innovative piece that examines class politics and power struggles in a way that proves to be as relevant now as when it was written. Enhanced by the opulence of Ti Green’s set, the notion of power corrupting is put under a microscope and delivers a piece that has moments of brilliance. The greatest strength of the production, however, comes in how it has integrated British Sign Language and audio description into mainstream performance. That alone makes it worth watching and will hopefully inspire future productions to do the same.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Robert Day