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Fast and Fabled: The Government Inspector

5 April 2017

The Government Inspector

By Nikolai Gogol

YAT,  Hampton Hill Theatre,  29th March to 1st April

Review by Georgia Renwick

YAT have never yet failed to impress me with the ambition of their production choices and their tenacity in realising them; their latest is no exception.  In the wake of their Winter 2016 production of Titanic, which opened the day following the US election, comes The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s satirical cautionary tale from 19th century Russia exposing the double standards and corruption of the governing powers, their use and misuse of the poor and the dangers of believing gossips, sycophants and fantasists.  It is a warning we all ought to heed, perhaps at this present time more than most.

In a brash and bawdy translation by David Harrower, first premiered at the Old Vic in 2011, Nikolai Gogol’s play tells the story of an isolated Russian province, where the poor shopkeepers and townsfolk suffer under the control of a corrupt and delusioned Mayor and his public service cronies, who’ll attempt to bribe their way out of anything.  Sufficiently cut off from ruling Saint Petersburg, the Mayor, played with boundless energy and impeccable comic timing by Benedict Lejac has become a ‘little tsar’, held accountable only by visits from elusive government inspectors he hasn’t seen for many years.  When the mayor learns he is to receive such a visit, blind panic sets in and he summons his sycophantic public servants to identify the incognito inspector.  Fuelled by misinformation from corrupt local landlords Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky (Anna Carlson and Karin Carlson) whose lack of wisdom is made up for in fabulous facial hair, the Mayor pursues a man at the local inn.  He discovers Khlestakov, who though originally from Petersburg and able to impersonate their ways with aplomb, is no inspector but a mere public servant who has holed himself up in the most out-of-the-way place he can find to avoid trouble at home.  And so unfolds a farcical undoing of the mayor and his authorities, as he plays every trick in the book to impress his falsely mistaken guest, from bribing him with cash ‘loans’, to marrying off his reluctant only daughter Maria, whose sulking and braying are delivered with zeal by Nathalie Châteauneuf.  Her mother Anna, played with panache by Caroline Bradshaw, is all too delighted to see her go.

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It is easy to get caught up in the ceaseless high jinks but Gogol never lets it veer too far from the searing satire at its heart.  In biting Brechtian fashion (though many decades ahead of its time) the Mayor delivers a direct hit to the audience, “you’re laughing at yourselves!” he bellows, and in the cartoonish figures he draws on the stage it would be hard to miss his point.  Indeed, Harrower’s translation paints perhaps too crude a picture of Gogol’s tale.  The cardboard-cut-out characters somewhat undermine the acting talents of YAT’s company, whilst the text is peppered too heavily with profanity and scatological humour, to the extent that the jokes ceased to disgust and moved to being simply tedious.

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Nevertheless, the YAT cast ran with it … from start to finish!  Director Josh Clarke begins the story out into the HHT bar, appropriate for a play dealing in excesses, with ensemble members jostling with the audience as they buy their pre-show refreshments.  They can also be found in the isles in the opening scene, their scrabbling fingernails resembling rats’ claws and creating a sinister surround-sound effect.  The pace and energy of each and every ensemble member is truly an impressive feat.  As Lejac and Evans literally chase each other around the stage (one wonders how many miles they cover each night!) it is easy to feel exhausted just watching their electrified performances, and yet they are not once caught breathless, the force of the delivery never drops.  In places the pace could have been brought down a peg or two, since once the energy peaked, very early on, there was nowhere for it to go.  That said, the laughter rarely let up and the audience certainly seemed to enjoy the ride.

The selection of jaunty provincial Russian music is evocative and enjoyable and further serves to pick up the relentless pace.

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Credit must be paid to the excellent set, which combines the Mayor’s plush house with the run-down inn in seamless fashion.  The window cut outs that run along the back of the stage feature colour changing lights that are effective in giving a surreal feel to the otherwise quite naturalistic setting.  The stylised silhouetted tableau that can be glimpsed through them are reminiscent of children’s book illustrations, reinforcing the fabled nature of Gogol’s timely tale.

Georgia Renwick

April 2017

Images by Jonathan Constant Photography

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From → Drama, Reviews

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