in a new version by David Harrower
at Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 25th May 2011
No play is utterly cohesive. There should always be discrepancies and arguments in theatre, asking questions and provoking thought. Sometimes, however, a lack of cohesiveness can come across as lack of thought. Richard Jones’ new production of Government Inspector tries to comment on the confusing structure of the text, but bizarre surrealism and cheap performances make it seem simply incongruous.
Gogol’s famous text is shown here to be no more than a country farce. An ambitious mayor does everything he can to appease a lodger in town who is supposed to be a government inspector. Vast quantities of roubles are exchanged and many lies told about the local amenities. Eventually, however, the townspeople discover he’s not an inspector at all, and that their time and energy has been wasted. It’s funny enough, but so many of the jokes in this production are found in base humour and jokes played without any truth.
David Harrower’s new version isn’t up to much, either. It isn’t a creative reworking, at times sounding like a word-for-word translation with a few updated idioms. A few good lines are lost among the rabble on stage and it plods along at either a snail’s pace or at the speed of light.
We are treated to a few good performances. Doon Mackichan as the Mayor’s Wife, Anna, is disarmingly naive, and Bruce MacKinnon as the town judge represents a provincial quality recognisable to us in Britain. As the ‘inspector’ Khlestakov, Kyle Soller gives a star turn with wild energy and disconcerting eyes. The name selling all the tickets, however, is far less impressive. In the role of Mayor, Julian Barratt is out of his depth. We get no sense of this official’s corruption, and he bumbles through his lines at such speed that the jokes plod without being allowed sufficient build-up; you expect more from an acclaimed comic performer. The other performances aren’t really worth mentioning; the rest of the bodies filling the stage are not much more than filler, without characterisation and with the apparent belief that they are acting in a pantomime.
The main fault of this production, however, lies in Richard Jones’ sloppy direction. Miriam Buether’s set suggests a Soviet-era setting, but there is absolutely no references to this at all in either costume or text. Surreal projections of the word “Incognito” appear in every scene change to the sound of UFO noises, black rats appear in the Mayor’s mind and sound effects by David Sawer drift from unknown places. Due to the differences in tone, performance and set, it is never clear what Jones is doing; if he’s trying to make a point about the messed up world of Gogol’s play, it doesn’t come through clearly enough. Mimi Jordan Smith’s green-wash lighting adds to the confusion, and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes look like they’ve been sourced from an am-dram dressing-up cupboard.
There are a few genuinely hilarious moments in this production, but among the mess on stage it’s hard to pick them out. One recurring motif, the repetition of lines at the end of a scene, represents how many of the gags work; funny at first, but pushed to the extreme where they fall flat on their face. Perhaps this production will improve when it transfers to the Young Vic in early June, but as it stands at the moment it’s a wildly confused and rather flacid production which is in dire need of some cohesiveness.