National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 16 June, 2005

Last summer you couldn’t get away from stagings of The Master And Margarita.  This year it’s Gogol’s 1836 satire The Government Inspector, in which a no-hoper gets mistaken for an agent from the Tsar checking on the corrupt, venal administration of a small town.  In a couple of weeks Alistair McGowan opens in a production at Chichester, but first at the National comes David Farr’s loosely adapted update of it.

Farr’s version of the play is set in a small post-Soviet republic of the kind that’s so often in the news lately.   When they hear that a United Nations official is coming to check they’re meeting all the conditions of their international loans, panic ensues.  The Englishman they mistake for the inspector, though, is Martin Gammon, the worst estate agent in the world: he’s broke, stranded, vain and a liar.

The set-up of the play affords room for both mordant satire and classic farce. Gammon gets a remarkable drunken set-piece speech about his implausible connections (“I was on Big Brother with Pinter!”), and a magnificent pratfall.  He chats up both the President’s wife and daughter, and fleeces virtually the entire cabinet as they “bribe” him.  The ministers themselves are a useless, bickering lot, but also tyrannical.

Farr scores in finding a way of making the humour bite as sharply at targets in our world as Gogol’s original did at the regime of Tsar Nicholas I.  As things get grimmer and grimmer in the final half-hour or so, we see these despots are prepared to go to shocking lengths simply to cling on to power.  It’s more outspoken in its way than anything the UK government has said about goings-on in, say, Uzbekistan.

The real target of this final phase of satire is not governments like that for committing such atrocities, but us for not doing anything to stop them.  Farr’s version walks a fine line, and not without the occasional misstep, but it’s impressive for refusing to cop out or sidestep the uncomfortable truth.  The President addresses the audience directly: “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!”

Michael Sheen as Gammon is unexpectedly like a young, wiry Rik Mayall. Kenneth Cranham as the President, a bruiser with a silver coxcomb, looks from some angles like Yushchenko of the Ukraine.  Other stalwarts in the cast include the unflappable Geraldine James as the President’s wife, and the delicious David Ryall as Minister for Justice.  There are a lot of laughs, but they’re not comfortable. That’s how I like it.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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