The Government Inspector

Playhouse (Bell Shakespeare Company)


By Nikolai Gogol, translated and adapted by Roger Pulvers

Professional production

There’s another name to be added to the list of the world’s greatest chameleon actors. In their films both Alec Guinness and, more recently, Ben Kingsley, seemed to be able to transform themselves instantly into myriad characters to whom they bore no physical resemblance, and with his portrayal of 13 multiple personae in John Bell’s latest production of Gogol’s comic masterpiece The Government Inspector, Australia’s William Zappa has joined them.

Appearing first as the mayor of an insignificant Russian town during the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Zappa changes face, costume, character and even gender in this farcical but psychologically incisive tale of the power of the rumour mill. In this case, the word is out that an anonymous government inspector is on his way to the town incognito, indeed may possibly already be there, and that he’ll be checking up on corruption and general skull-duggery of which there is, of course, plenty, mostly involving bribes that the mayor takes.
BR> Meanwhile, an elegant but aimless drifter called Khlestakov on his way to nowhere is holed up in the local hotel, unable to pay his bills and leave town. The equally-brilliant Darren Gilshenan plays this role, as well as five others, and his interpretation of this feckless self-seeking young man, totally without integrity or conscience, is another comic masterpiece.

Translator/adapter Roger Pulvers has turned Gogol’s 1834 classic into a farcical two-hander, shortening the script and pacing it so that the laughs come two-a-minute, and under John Bell’s inspired direction the play is one of the funniest pieces of satirical brilliance to hit the Brisbane stage in years. The action is manic but perfectly controlled, and the two experienced actors provide a lesson in the fine art of playing comedy that many of our younger practitioners should see and learn from. Even though all the characters are comic stereotypes, in the hands of Gilshenan and Zappa they are razor-sharp condensations of types that we already know, bureaucrats and minor officials who are instantly recognisable.

So behind the hilarity there is, as in Gogol’s other great work Dead Souls, a sense of despair and futility, and we laugh not just out of recognition, but because we know that we are seeing the truth about people and society compressed to such a state of caricature that we just have to laugh, otherwise we’d go mad. And with our own federal election coming up, the image has even more depressing relevance.

In the hands of John Bell, this The Government Inspector is a model of production and performance. From the rickety cardboard box of a set to the outrageous wigs and impeccable timing of the slapstick (surely there should be a credit for the movement director on the program), it’s a stylish masterpiece of pure drama, which proves that live theatre can work a kind of magic that the screen cannot.

It will go down in my book as one of the most brilliant displays of the actor’s art that I’ve ever seen, from both performers, but what still haunts me about the play itself is a sentiment echoed in Cavafy’s 20th century poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, that the enemy/spy/disaster is often in our own minds, and that simply the fear itself can bring out our true nature in the way we react to the imagined threat:

“What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are to arrive today.
Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.

And, when it is clear that the barbarians do not exist, the reaction:

“And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.”

Go and see this production if you possibly can. It’s a masterpiece and a master-class in one.

Director: John Bell

Designer: Stephen Curtis

Composer: Alan John

Lighting Design: Damien Cooper

Playing Wednesday – Saturday 10 – 20 October: evenings at 7.30pm, matinees 11am and 2pm

Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 11th October 2007)