Venue: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Roxana Silbert’s canny direction of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is seething with infectious humour. Its influence has trickled down since the play’s inception in 1836 to the likes of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the even more recognisable J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Heralded by Nabokov as the greatest play in the Russian language, David Harrower’s insightful adaptation makes it plain to see why this satirical masterpiece exposing society’s latent corruption is still as applicable in the twenty-first century.
With its inaugural performance at Silbert’s own Birmingham Repertory Theatre back in March, the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s staging of The Government Inspector is the first in a series of productions by ‘Ramps on the Moon’: a collaboration of cross-regional theatres putting Deaf and disabled artists at the heart of their ‘mainstream’ repertoire over the next six years. Akin to all future plays, last night’s performance was fully accessible; integrating British sign language, audio description and captioning from the outset. Opening with the Mayor’s panicked announcement of the impending arrival of a government inspector, the stage was set as pandemonium – a frenzy of townspeople clumped together, preoccupied by self-interest and the prospect of an outsider scrutinising their dissolute, rural ways. Although the myriad means of absorbing the play might have seemed a tad overwhelming initially (with the script and audio descriptions projected on a vast digital placard above the stage, and multiple interpreters variously positioned around the protagonists in question), if anything, the effect added to the play’s inherent eccentricity and its cacophony of conflicted voices. The result? A delighted audience entranced by such a spectacle.
A number of quirks in Harrower’s adaptation were indebted to the visually sumptuous film, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. From the bronze painted lobby and revolving door, pivotal to the influx of fraudulent transactions – the work of set designer Ti Green – harking back to the decadence of fin de siècle Russia, to the identical purple uniforms worn by the Mayor’s bellboys-come-interpreters; stylistically, every aspect of this production smacked of Wes Anderson. Even David Carlye’s rendering of the Mayor, with his obsessive kissing, erratic running and exaggerated facial expressions echoed the body language of Ralph Fiennes’s parallel role in the film. Yet the influence of Anderson worked to great effect in Silbert’s production – underlining Gogol’s cluster of morally dubious characters in a debauched setting, inhabiting an era almost immune from the threat of a future proletarian government.
Indeed, Silbert’s direction of the play seemed to exude intertextuality, giving the performance an even greater sense of familiarity than the already universal themes addressed. The rapid quips exchanged between Bobchinksy and Dobchinsky (played by Stephen Collins and Rachel Denning respectively) were reminiscent of the twin gravediggers in Hamlet, whilst Khlestakov’s servant Osip (Michael Keane) figured as a fellow Budapest bellboy, divulging his inner Dobby-esque ‘woe is me’ mannerisms. Meanwhile, a scathing diatribe on the perils of external interference in education was acute in a post-Gove world – a modern relevance in the play’s subject matter extending as far back as the Stasi era of surveillance and constant paranoia, engendered even by one’s own neighbours.
There is little not to be enticed by in this imaginative reworking of The Government Inspector. Perhaps the only fault to be picked with the performance would be when the more obvious comedic moments began to grate – notably during an extended and virtually uninterrupted monologue by Robin Morrissey as Khlestakov. Yet this relative weakness owed much to the collective strength of the ensemble’s dynamics overall. The panic-stricken hubbub amongst the town’s residents and interplay between hush-hush and overtly explicit bribes was one of the greatest enjoyments of the play.
Silbert’s production should not only be commended for its inaugural role in the ‘Ramps on the Moon’ project. The entire company have produced an exhilarating and highly amusing piece of theatre that reinstates the ulterior motives of humanity and our misguided moral compasses.