The Government Inspector

Corruption, greed and a classic case of mistaken identity: Gogol’s savage political satire follows one town’s attempt to outwit a government inspector

May 25, 2011

The Master’s Garden, University College, 25 - 28 May 2011

Corrupt and self-serving officials in a small town in the middle of the Imperial Russian nowhere have for donkey’s years been making merry with the funds and handing out jobs for the boys. Out of the blue arrives word that a government inspector is about to descend upon them from a great height. The gravy train is on course for the buffers and the apple cart is about to be turned upside down (if my culinary metaphors are bit mixed I’ll blame the first-night Siberian wind sweeping in from Omsk - or was it Tomsk? - into the gardens of University College. How grateful was I for my Daily Info-issue muffler and long johns). Before the books can be cooked, Khlestakov, a penniless braggart on the scrounge from the big city pops up, is mistaken for the great man, and we settle down to a comedy of mistaken identity as the fawning locals toady for favours.
 
What with our MPs’ duck houses and penchant for clean moats, not to mention backbiting coalitions and shattered university fee promises, Nikolai Gogol’s play from 1836 has lost not one jot of relevance. The link between Gogol’s world and ours suggests a certain stasis; as the players move exuberantly through the thicket of comedy, life and people are revealed as essentially unchanged despite the passing of 175 years.
 
The Univ. Players’ 13-strong cast defied the freezing elements before a somewhat sparse first night audience of 25. In both respects they deserved better. Director Jack Peters has capably trodden the fine line between playing up the knockabout comedy whilst not neglecting the social satire, though I felt that the physical space between players and audience could with advantage be reduced.
 
Khlestakov, with James Skinner looking and sounding like a muted Boris Johnson, is impressively fluent though perhaps lacking a little in variety (I could have done with a few more boorish outbursts). He is backed up by a gallery of self-serving, petty apparatchiks led by a nicely wheedling Judge Ammos (James Carroll), and Russia’s answer to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Messrs Bobchinsky (a lively Esme Hicks) and Dobchinsky. But the star turn is Felix Legge as the mayor. He dominates the show, alternately cajoling, blustering, grovelling and then threatening. His verbal dexterity as he switches from his dialogue to asides to the audience is matched by fluent movement. He’s a class act, on his own a compelling reason to see the show.
I've just watched this production this afternoon and spent a great few hours chuckling at the jokes which seem as relevant today as they were when Gogol wrote this clever little play. There were some excellent performances: true the mayor is strong, but we also thought the so called 'inspector' was worthy of a special mention for his excellent portrayal of an upper crust gent on his uppers. Highly recommended!
Gogol’s satirical farce was written in 1836 as one of the most original instances of drama in Russia at that time. The political content caused such a stir that it was only performed on the express orders of Tsar Nicholas I. The play deals with the comic havoc created in a small provincial town by the revelation that a government official has been sent incognito to inspect the province. The Mayor and his officials are terrified by what the inspector may discover and collude to conceal the truth from him. When an anonymous young clerk arrives from St Petersburg they believe they’ve found their man and set about bribing him. The young clerk is not, of course, a government inspector but a spendthrift minor official who has been impeded on his journey home by lack of funds. He relishes the deference and financial help of the town’s officials and ends up with a pocket full of cash and the hand of the Mayor’s daughter in marriage. He leaves promising, but not intending, to return. The play ends with the revelation that the real inspector has arrived. If you’ve ever seen the Hotel Inspectors episode of Fawlty Towers, you will recognise the plot immediately.

The play is invigorated by its tight direction under Sophie Pinn and the almost universal brilliance of her cast. Alex Worsnip as the Inspector has just the right combination of foppery and self-pretension to deceive the gullible town’s folk. The officials were brought alive by beautifully grotesque performances from Mona Shroedel-York as the Charities Warden and the exceptional Paul Tosio as the Judge. Emily MacKenzie was superb as the Mayor’s wife – nosey, flighty and wonderfully self-absorbed. But undoubtedly the best performance of the night came from Philip Aspin as the Mayor. He moved seamlessly from toadying ingratiation to furious rage and from craven fears for his own position to the fantastical imaginations of the promotion he believes will ensue. His comic delivery, as with all the cast, is perfect and the well-paced jokes kept the audience more than amused.

The costuming in black and red was aesthetically very satisfying but the movement of set was sometimes done without the necessary care and this obscured lines at times. Even so, this is a minor gripe in what was a fabulous evening’s entertainment. I urge you to prove that the last week of the University term is not a bad week to stage a play. Go and give this cast the audience they deserve. You won’t regret it!
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