Government Inspector – review

Young Vic, London

There are, broadly speaking, two possible approaches to Gogol's classic 1836 comedy. Treat it as a realistic satire on provincial corruption or as a wild fantasy. Given his track record, Richard Jones unsurprisingly leans more towards the latter in a strange, rich production that echoes Nabokov's claim that the play was the product of Gogol's "private nightmares peopled with his own incomparable goblins".

At first I thought it strained too hard for laughs. The play starts with the news that a St Petersburg bigwig is travelling in secret to a provincial backwater. So the word "incognito" is projected on to the set and floats around ardently pursued by Julian Barratt's mayor. No sooner has the mayor announced that he has dreamed of rats than two verminous monsters appear outside his door. We also get a wealth of comic sound effects including a cow mooing every time an eccentric Teutonic doctor opens his mouth.

But once we get to the heart of the play, which is that a minor St Petersburg clerk is mistaken for the government inspector, the production takes off; and its brilliance lies in the realisation that Gogol's work consists of the collision of two forms of madness. Kyle Soller as the posturing Khlestakov is an extraordinary, ginger-haired beanpole whose fastidiousness is undercut by his intemperate greed. Above all, Soller plays him as a Russian Walter Mitty who can't quite believe that his wildest fantasies are being realised. Feted by the townsfolk, he boasts of his "huge balls" and his authorship of Madame Bovary and The Marriage of Figaro and at one point climbs on to the mantelpiece to pose alongside the portrait of Tsar Nicholas. He is, quite clearly, mad as a hatter.

Jones artfully suggests, however, that the locals are just as much in the grip of fantasy. Doon Mackichan as the mayor's wife offers a wonderfully funny portrait of social pretension carried to the point of dementia so that, even when the truth is revealed, she is still locked into her ecstatic dream.

Louise Brealey as her daughter is so anxious to ensnare Khlestakov that she appears before him in ever more figure-revealing frocks. And Barratt successfully shows that under the mayor's wheedling sycophancy lurks a monster who dispatches his enemies to a torture chamber with an ominously naked bulb.

As it progresses, the production gets ever wilder. The changes to Miriam Buether's set acquire a nightmarish quality. David Sawer's disturbing sound effects evoke a needle painfully scratching a gramophone record. And, as the stage fills with gold balloons imprinted with the image of the Tsar, the evening acquires a festal frenzy.

David Harrower's new translation, which oddly drops the play's definite article, is still funny. But Jones's highly inventive production makes you realise that Gogol's play exists at a tangent to reality and boldly confronts endemic corruption with a form of certifiable self-delusion.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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