First published in 1836, Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector has long been considered a masterpiece in comedy, farce, and political criticism. This co-production by Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre and Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre takes its inspiration from Gogol's work, and while retaining certain thematic and structural features of the original, it strays as far as is imaginable with drastically transformed contexts and characters.
Simon Stone writes and directs this new version, continuing his passion for adapting and modernising eminent classics of the stage. Fresh from last year's successful – and bloody – re-telling of Strindberg's Miss Julie, he once again presents an interpretation that is radical and completely surprising. This production is a last minute replacement for The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry, which had been removed from its programmed slot due to unforeseen copyright issues. It is unclear how much time was available for Stone and his team to rehearse and workshop their take on The Government Inspector, but the volume of ideas and creativity it contains more than lives up to the famed hilarity of its inceptive roots.
Developing on the theme of mistaken identities, Stone's show takes on a layer of complexity by embracing and incorporating the experience of losing one script and gaining another. The actors play out a farce that represents their predicament, and in doing so capitalise on the opportunity to create a work about the artistic process. This stems from both their anxiety and a need to satisfy the paying audience – what results is a piece of theatre that is thoroughly crowd-pleasing, and relentless in its pursuit of laughter.
Stone's courage and edginess as an artist translates curiously well in this madcap comedy format. Popular culture and theatre references are utilised to great effect, but it is Stone's liberal amount of sarcasm and irony that gives the production an air of intelligence and pointed sophistication. It is a very fine line between silliness and stupidity, but we are never lured into any realm of coarseness or vulgarity. The show plays for laughs, but doggedly rejects the cheap ones.
The performances are excellent. The cast of seven might not be uniform in ability and experience but the ensemble they have created is impressively even: the chemistry between them is stunning, and a tremendous highlight. Eryn Jean Norvilldelights with a subtle approach that exhibits preparedness and confidence. The character she creates is a familiar one, but instead of placing too much emphasis on naturalism, Norvill brings with her a sense of knowing, always applying a level of commentary to her actor and character selves. Her attempted defiance against a moment of sexism in the play-within-a-play is poignant and pitch perfect. Zahra Newman is the only actor with two roles, including Dolores de la Cruz, a janitor who delivers some of the biggest laughs by lampooning the thespians. In one of the show's few political moments, the actors discuss Newman's ethnicity being an element that provides unfair advantage in the casting process, and it is a pleasure watching her turn an uncomfortable taboo subject into something quite memorable and meaningful.
Gareth Davies is a show-stealer for the duration in which he plays a version of the misidentified inspector. More than any other in the cast, Davies' execution of the production's improvisational tone is credible and exciting, the frantic energy particularly raw and unhinged when he takes centre stage. Greg Stone's exuberant charisma and zeal for self-deprecation quickly endears him to the crowd. His thorough grasp of the material at hand is reflected in his outstanding comic timing. A simple throwaway line about obtaining a job in an office is transformed into a biting joke about the state of the arts in Australia.
Design aspects are fairly basic, but the introduction of a revolving stage removes the need to facilitate set changes and speeds up entrances and exits. This makes for a fast-paced, dynamic affair that keeps the audience attentive and the atmosphere persistently buoyant.
There is an extended musical portion in the show that could have felt extraneous, but its insertion is handled with great wit – we not only forgive its inclusion but find ourselves at new dizzying heights of outrageous comedy. The Government Inspector, by Stone and co-writer Emily Barclay, is an exceptionally funny show, but it cannot be denied that the political resonances in Gogol's writing have all but disappeared. Of course, theatre does not have to be political in order to be valid or indeed meritorious, but radical adaptations of classics will always be controversial, especially when a key feature that has made something legendary is left behind.