Gogol’s Government Inspector, which I went to see at the Young Vic last week, is the sort of play that I admire more with hindsight than I did while actually watching it.
Originally published in 1836, it is ostensibly a satire on political corruption in the Russian Empire. The play hinges on the arrival of an ‘incognito’ government inspector to a provincial Russian town. The town’s inhabitants react to this news with hysterical panic. The mayor (played by The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt) and his minions decide that a visitor to the town, who has been spending lots of money and has upper-class manners, must be the inspector. They go to visit him. They ply him with compliments and bribes. He’s not really the inspector, though: he’s just a man called Khlestakov (Kyle Soller), from St. Petersburg, on the run from a dodgy, frivolous past. He doesn’t admit this though: he milks the opportunity for all it’s worth, acting the part of the inspector, making long, elaborate speeches, seducing the mayor’s wife and daughter and promising marriage to the latter, and making as much money from the town’s residents as possible. He even calls for the mayor’s dismissal, after learning that he’s been behaving in corrupt ways. When the mayor and co. discover the truth, they are, of course, enraged; but Khlestakov has already left. The play ends with the mayor receiving a letter from the real inspector announcing his imminent arrival.
This plot summary may make it sound like a pretty straightforward, naturalistic play, but it’s not; or, at least, this production strives not to be from the outset. One of the first indicators of this is the projection of the word ‘incognito’ across the set, which Barratt’s mayor plays with, moving it around with a sneeze, or trying to find it when it disappears. There’s also the set itself – it’s the mayor’s home, which is decorated in an opulent but tasteless way, but which has skewed proportions that evoke an Alice-in-Wonderland-type queasiness.
The ultra-extravagant costumes also have a nauseating effect. The mayor’s wife’s (Doon Mackichan’s) dresses particularly will be forever etched on my mind, especially a blistering glittery turquoise number that she brings out to impress the ‘inspector’. Khlestakov is a blindingly colourful character too, with a mop of bright red hair and tight electric blue trousers. Two of the mayor’s minions, a sort of Tweedledee and Tweedledum double act, wear fetching checked suits.
On top of this, it’s often a very physical comedy, and relies on this for laughs, at times. Khlestakov is a restless, energetic, nimble character. The mayor’s daughter (Louise Brealey) parades in front of him in increasingly higher heels and increasingly more bizarre walks. The brilliant Amanda Lawrence of Kneehigh fame is in it, too, and she also uses physical comedy to great effect, as does Doon Mackichan.
I like the sound of the play I’m describing here – with hindsight. It reminds me of The Master and Margarita (written a century later. Gogol was a big influence on Bulgakov). It shares the same atmosphere of ridiculous, hysterical farce that tips over into unpleasantness with a bitter aftertaste. It’s a very effective approach to satire. The difference is that in Bulgakov’s novel it really works, but in this production of Gogol’s play it doesn’t, really. While the individual performances are often accomplished and amusing, it remains at the level of shallow farce for too long. If it was supposed to be a straightforward comedy of errors, that might have been okay. But I just kept expecting more from it. The attempts at weirdness, although Julian Barratt was well suited to them as they were often very Booshesque, were just there to amuse, instead of contributing towards a decisive descent from all the light-hearted tomfoolery into a genuinely sinister, uneasy, biting atmosphere that would have made it work as a satire, and made it a more rewarding play to watch.