The Government Inspector

Bribery and corruption, greed and stupidity dominate Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Dating from 1836, it’s a play begging to be transformed into our own age as a satirical commentary on the vices that have plagued recent governments and dogged institutions. Yet director and adaptor Patrick Myles misses the opportunity at the Marylebone Theatre in a bizarrely staged farce that might easily portend the pantomime season.

Not so much lost in translation as destroyed in adaptation

Gogol penned a damning indictment of the political establishment and its administrators. What we would now call the right-wing press (ie all the press) were up in arms about it, but Tsar Nicholas I, considering himself to be above those at whom it was aimed, wanted the play staged. On seeing its premiere he declared, "There is nothing sinister in the comedy, as it is only a cheerful mockery of bad provincial officials." It reinforced his contempt for the petty bourgeoisie and exposed them in public.

Taken out of Russia, the setting is now a small English town located in an unspecified part of England somewhere north of Watford, to judge by a Brummy and a strong Pennine accent among the indistinguishables, but new location makes some lines from the original seem out of place. Who in England would suggest that a person’s head felt like a Cossack’s hat? Distant London is held in awe by the locals who associate it with a lavish lifestyle far removed from their own mediocre existence. It’s a place where balls are held. If that raises a smirk, then you are in tune with the tone of the production. There are something in the order of four miserable attempts to drain hunour from the word, which are overshadowed only by attempts to make the title Count sound like a well-known four-letter word. Talking of whom, when he finds himself without trousers and is offered a pair of green breeches he is so appalled at having to put them on he proclaims the most distasteful line of the show, that “even a refugee would burn them” rather than wear them, though some found it amusing.

The play revolves around two key figures. Gogol’s Russian Mayor is now the Governor of the English backwater, though why he has that utterly unEnglish title remains a mystery, when the country is host to many mayors and the only Governor runs the Bank of England. D.S Mirsky observed that the character “is full of meaningless movement and meaningless fermentation incarnate, on a foundation of placidly ambitious inferiority". Little could he have realised how prophetic his words would be.

Dan Skinner as Governor Swashprattle charges onto the stage and shouts his opening lines at breakneck speed, rendering them unintelligible. This over-the-top style is moderated only slightly as the action progresses. He also looks out of place, dressed in a bright red and gold military dress uniform that gives him the appearance of a toy soldier from the nursery floor. Indeed, the costumes throughout give the impression that designer Melanie Jane Brookes opened the wardrobe and the cast were given free rein to grab any period piece they fancied. Her green and gold set, however, looks stunning.

Skinner also has the misfortune to deliver the lines that famously break the fourth wall: "What are you laughing about? You are laughing about yourselves!" We should have screamed back, “Oh no we’re not”. Gogol’s history-making words require a pointed and nuanced approach to the script to make any sense and so here the whole business of jumping off the stage to make a direct address seemed ridiculous, but by that point it didn’t seem to matter.

Martha Howe-Douglas performs eccentrically, but retains a matronly role as Mrs Swashprattle, longing for an elevated status in life and to part of high society, (she has a thing about balls!) even as she lays herself open to seduction by the man mistakenly believed to be the Inspector, for whom anyone would do anything in order to gain a glowing report. Kiell Smith-Bynoe as Fopdoodle milks this role and certainly appears to be more of a fop than a government official as he swans around in fine clothes. In contrast to all the foolery, Daniel Millar as Fopdoodle’s manservant, Fudgel and Chaya Gupta as Connie, the Swashprattle’s daughter, bring subtlety and a breath of fresh air to their roles in a style of performance that has depth.

Gogol intended the play to be a comedy of errors, but surely not in the way it's portrayed here. Myles’ Government Inspector is not so much lost in translation as destroyed in adaptation.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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