The Government Inspector

Wed 24th – Sat 27th October 2012

reviews

Daniel Malcolm

at 10:02 on 25th Oct 2012

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The mayor of a small Russian town receives a letter warning him that an government inspector is on his way to investigate incognito. The panicked search for the inspector lights upon a foppish civil clerk at a local hostel. Taking advantage of the misunderstanding he leads the town a merry dance.

The success of the play depends upon making fools of the townspeople without making them fools. Their incredulity, and unquestioning respect for rank, is balanced well against the audacious panache with which the clerk carries off his improvised act. Initially cutting a rather pathetic figure as he grovels for food in his hostelry - he takes to the role of government inspector with relish - carrying just enough conviction to make the imposition plausible - but little enough to make everyone including himself look silly.

One of the delights of the play is the servile cunning of his manservant. His first speech - an eye-twinkling description of the fascinations of St. Petersburg sets up his gleefully naive taste for the finer things in life. And he was soon scuttling about the stage - with a quite adorable glint in his eye - to make the most of his master's pretended generalship.

In the opening scene I had fears that the cringing, brow-furrowing rustics of this town were going to be difficult to distinguish. Far from it, The Oxford Theatre Guild have created a colourful spectrum of larger-than-life characters: from the gruff, twitchy judge to the flamboyant, finger-wiggling exuberance of Dobchinksy. They are not very Russian mind you - the clerk in particular has the air of a rather wet public schoolboy - but then the translation feels just right - of characters as well as script (in an intercepted letter, the clerk describes the mayor as a jack-ass!)

The play doesn't sacrifice its satirical message to the all these fun and frolics. The audience had been humorously involved in the play all along - the first half closed with the chief of police threatening us with his truncheon. Good preparation for a telling moment, when the humiliated mayor accuses the audience: 'don't tell me that none of you have never added a little bit on expenses. Laugh at yourselves'. I squirmed for every sweet I've ever stolen. The expenses scandal had been in the air all along - but this drove the satire that saw Gogol exiled home personally.

The play does have one strange lurch of tone. The townspeople who try to petition the clerk (posing as the government inspector) have some dark stories to tell about the abuses in the town. For once, the clerk and play's levity is shaken. The lights are dimmed - music broods - petitions start to rain from the ceiling - imploring hands reach through the windows - a man wrapped in bloody bandages breaks through the door. Overwhelmed, the clerk collapses. It's a dark moment - and one which through a set plastered with petitions overshadows the play. As a reminder that the "peccadilloes" of the town councillors have consequences, it is powerful - even if it seemed a little odd when everything goes back to jovial normality next morning.

This inspector was appalled by the corruption of late imperial Russia but delighted by the Oxford Theatre Guild's imaginative performance. Worth inspecting for yourself!

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