Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Theatre Review : Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol - Young Vic (dir Richard Jones 20/6/11)

Comedies of confusion appear to be à la mode in London this summer, but whereas Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, so successfully transformed into One Man, Two Guvnors at the Lyttleton, is essentially a piece of highly entertaining fluff, Nickolai Gogol’s vicious satire Government Inspector was sufficiently provoking to the Tsarist government for it to ban the play and send its author into exile.

The basic premise is simple. The mayor of a provincial Russian town hears that a Government Inspector is due to visit his town, and is worried that he might arrive incognito. When he hears that a gentleman from St Petersburg has arrived at the Inn he assumes that this must be the Inspector. However, it is in fact the penniless chancer Khlestakov, who is at first bemused when the mayor pays off his debts, but quickly works out how to turn the situation to his advantage when he learns that the townspeople wish to shower him with bribes and the mayor’s wife and daughter are overcome with the wit and sophistication of the gentleman from St Petersburg.

Gogol’s original play is sublime, spearing the corruption and pretensions of mid-19th Century Russia. However, this wonderful new production by Richard Jones, based on a fresh translation by Ian Harrower, takes the play into a new dimension entirely. This is Gogol-as-cartoon, fast and brash and bright and stylish. The set is the interior of a house which disappears rapidly into an impossible perspective, the costumes are from CbeeBees, the characters grotesques. Visually it was superb, every angle and mannerism maximised for comic effect. But it captured the manic surreality of Gogol perfectly, and the exaggerated movement allows the action to hurtle along at a cracking pace.

Louise Brealey (Maria), Doon Mackichan (Anna)
 and Julian Barratt (Mayor) in
Government Inspector at the Young Vic, London

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Kyle Soller as Khlestikov is superb, his increasingly manic machinations driving the comedy, and he is well matched by Doon Mackichan and Louise Brearley as the mayor’s wife Maria and daughter Anna, Anna tottering in her short skirt and high heels or slumped on the seat in teenage ennui, Maria with fan and leg outstretched indulging in “sophisticated” small-talk. The bit when they hear that the so-called Inspector from St Petersberg will stay at their house and both run around screaming is perfect. All the supporting cast are very good, hamming it up for all they are worth, Amanda Lawrence as the inquisitive postmaster in particular.

The only disappointment, however, was Julian Barrett as the Mayor. Barrett’s previous experience on stage is as a comedian, and on television. As far as I can discover, this is his first major theatrical acting role, and one could tell. He looked the part, his movement was very good and some facial expressions very funny, but his delivery was a bit flat and lacked conviction when compared to the manic, exaggerated projection of his fellow actors. In other productions this may not have mattered, but here he was exposed and it left a bit of a hole in the middle of the show.

However, this was the only weakness in a tremendously good production, one which was as visually striking as anything I have seen in years. Fast, funny, clever, stylish, this really demonstrated – vide my comments on Deborah Warner’s School for Scandal – how to make an old play relevant for the 21st Century, as all the youngsters around me seemed to love it.

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