It’s been a sin of omission on my part that I have never visited the Warwick Arts Centre before last Saturday. Its reputation as a home for challenging theatre was made early on in its life in the 1970s, so I’m delighted to have finally found it and will be checking religiously for new shows to see there. I recommend it – the sightlines are excellent, the sound is clear and the seats are comfortable. The ice-creams were tasty but I wasn’t that keen on the cafeteria aspect of the bar areas. It’s definitely more functional than sophisticated.
I also have a great fondness for the Young Vic, where I saw some pretty sensational stuff in the 1970s and early 80s, and so it was with eagerness that I booked for us to see “The Government Inspector”, being a Warwick Arts Centre – Young Vic co-production.
Gogol’s 1836 play is a satire on corruption and greed. It’s a terribly simple plot. An inspector is to arrive incognito in some backwater Russian town and the mayor and notables are terrified that their corrupt inefficiencies will get discovered. They assume a new man in town is the inspector and so, as they are used to receiving bribes, they give him bribes to smooth the waters. Of course, he isn’t the inspector but a waster with a gambling addict, so he is pleased to receive their money and take advantage of the townswomen to boot. At the end, he leaves scot-free with all the cash, and the locals, much poorer, still await the horror of the real government inspection.
I’ve not seen or read this play before, but I understand it that it is often presented with an eye to the surreal. That’s certainly the tack taken by director Richard Jones in what I felt was a pretty woeful production.
Let’s start with the set. Stage right you have the Mayor’s living room, taking up the majority of the usable area. Stage left you have another room, at times the mayor’s wife’s boudoir, their guest room, the room at the inn, or an interrogation room-cum-torture chamber. Fair enough. My opinon is, having established those boundaries, stick with it. But for the final scene the mayor’s front room just extends and takes over the other stage area, oblivious of its previous segregation and because of the other area’s different flooring and decoration, it just looks and feels wrong. On another occasion, when Khlestakov, the non-inspector, was sleeping on the floor in the guest room area, his feet distinctly broke through the imaginary wall and ended up in the mayor’s parlour area. Sloppy, I thought; no real respect given to the staging.
Secondly, the vision of the play is inconsistent regarding its era. Whilst the majority of the time it appears to be fully 1830s as far as costume, scenery and props are concerned, in the final scene, all the guests have helium balloons. Not sure that’s entirely right.
And then you have the stage effects. In order (presumably) to give an impression of the mayor’s tormented mind, they project the moving word “incognito” on to the walls in a spooky sort of way. And rats appear at the door and along the picture rail too. The trouble is the rats are laughable. They look for all the world like the ones that they didn’t make earlier on Blue Peter. Visually, it came across as very cheap and amateur. There’s one scene change moment when – for some reason – all the stagehands and actors who are moving scenery come on wearing bird masks and other surreal costumes. There was no artistry to those costumes; they look like they were just chucked on higgledy-piggledy. They were tawdry and it was embarrassing. Plus it was accompanied by a ridiculously loud, off-putting, indescribable and headache-inducing sound effect.
Oh my God those sound effects. I can only guess they were meant to enhance certain aspects of the play for the hard of understanding. When Khlestakov is sitting on one chair and the mayor’s daughter is on another, he draws the chair close to her as a visual sign of pursuing her. She pulls her chair away from him. He follows her again, she pulls away again, and so on. This takes place on carpet. Yet the scene is “improved” by having a chair scraping sound effect whenever the chairs move. It makes the whole thing so unsubtle. At other times, there is music in the background which ends with an old-fashioned “stylus being dragged across a record” sound effect. Not quite sure what it was meant to signify, but by the sixth or seventh time I’d heard it I wanted to smash the record over the director’s head. It was an overdose of inanity.
On the whole the performances themselves were not bad. Julian Barratt plays the Mayor, and as I have never seen The Mighty Boosh, I had no preconceived ideas about what he would be like. On the whole I enjoyed his performance; I liked his facial expressions, and I thought he conveyed the mayor’s tortured angst pretty well. My main concern was that he spoke in a monotone nearly all the time. I wouldn’t say he actually sounded monotonous, but he kept exactly the same vocal cadences for when he was talking to his family, buttering up the soi-disant inspector, dealing with the other worthies of the town or interrogating the dissident shopkeeper. It lacked variation.
Doon Mackichan, for whom I have a lot of time , played his wife. A naturally comic personality, she was great vamping up to the inspector and trying to out-sexy her daughter in his affections. For me the stage certainly brightened up whenever she appeared. Kyle Soller was Khlestakov; we saw him as the eponymous Talented Mr Rigby last year, where I didn’t entirely believe his charisma, but this time I found him more convincing. Basically Khlestakov is a show-off fop, camping it up around the stage and taking advantage of everyone, and he did it fine.
I can’t help but think, though, that instead of this downright weird presentation, it would have been much more telling if it had been played more straight and serious. I would have thought you could really demonstrate the scale of the corruption and foolishness of the townspeople and make Khlestakov more of a threatening and manipulative presence if they’d taken away all the gimmicks and left the text. What are now mere cartoon characters could become real people instead. This would also have meant the impact of the final realisation by the townspeople that they had been fooled would have been more devastating. As it is, the ending has all the force of being kicked in the shins by a dormouse.
There was a theme of repetition too: characters repeating the same short speeches ad nauseam to very little dramatic effect. God it was tedious. No wonder it felt like the show runs for several hours. I think I should stop now before I think of other aspects of the show that irritated me.
It’s an excellent play, but it’s a production that tries too hard to be clever, relies too heavily on artificial effects and offers too much caricature instead of characterisation to warrant the ticket price, I’m sorry to say.