A Farce Too Far: Review of Belvoir’s The Government Inspector
Just as the apparent Government Inspector in Gogol’s 1836 play does not turn out to be who he seems, so too is Simon Stone’s The Government Inspector not what it bills itself as. But that’s all part of the joke. It would be fruitless to describe the plot of Gogol’s play, because this production isn’t it (the only element that remains the same is a case of mistaken identity). Instead, Stone has drawn on the experience of having the rights to The Philadelphia Story pulled at the last minute. This is where the play opens, with his troupe of actors dismayed at potentially being out of the job. They need a quick solution, so they decide to mount a production of The Government Inspector. But they also need a new director (in this version of events Stone walks out on them). Someone has a bright idea to invite a famed Uzbekistani director to throw together his award-winning, post-soviet interpretation of the play in a week. Of course, they mistake a bungling B-grade actor for the genuine article … let the farce begin.
Now, to be fair, Robert Menzies does warn the audience from the get go that this is not The Government Inspector, and anyone wanting to see that show should leave. It’s a clever post-modernist tactic to preempt criticism. However, this does beg the question: why call it The Government Inspector at all?
It seems to be a recurring issue with Simon Stone that he misses the point of the material he’s working with. In this case, he’s taken a political satire and turned it into a version of Noises Off (without the production values). We essentially watch characters fumble around the stage, trying to salvage a show that’s only getting worse. Though to be clear, there is a lot of talent onstage, and this is a very funny play.
Some have read this production as an exposé of Australia’s fetish with European theatre, or inversely, as an exposé of what constitutes plagiarism or copyright and how adaptation and interpretation push up against those lines. While it is possible to point to some of these motifs within the play it certainly doesn’t tease them out in any meaningful way. In the end we’re left with an amusing, if somewhat light, half-baked ride … of course, it’s supposed to look half-baked, so they can get away with it to a degree. Again, one is reminded of Noises Off, a show presented as half-backed, which is anything but. This is in no way to take away from the cast though, as they all put did a wonderful job with what they had to work with.
Gareth Davies is always fascinating to watch. Davies consistently performs with great comedic precision. He also allows the audience small moments of flustered charm, which, to his credit, produces the only nuanced moment in the production. Greg Stone (recently from his role as Polonius in Belvoir’s Hamlet) had great fun as the tall poppy version of himself, even if his punchlines were a little undifferentiated. Zahra Newman was playfully terse as her revved up self, but triumphed in her second role as the satisfyingly formulae Latino cleaning lady. And when Newman started to sing, it became apparent that she was tragically underused: what an incredible voice.
A stand out for the production was Mitchell Butel, virtually unrecognisable from his previous role as the priest in STC’s Romeo and Juliet. Butel nails a subtle delineation of camp, poisonous but closeted queen vibe, playing aggressive indifference to perfection. He too shined when it came to the musical numbers. His old Romeo and Juliet co-star, Eryn-Jean Norvill (fresh from her title role) is deliciously torturous as the ‘one-thought-wonder’ floozy. Her role is best summed up by bimbo-Norvill’s understanding of the play proposed: ‘Gogol without the Google’.
Good performances also came from Robert Menzies who delivers a refreshing speech at the play’s open. It is beautifully performed, allowing for the comedy to bubble, without boiling over. Finally, Fayssal Bazzi played a quiet yet endearing oddball version of himself, making for wonderful comic additions to the ongoing chaos. As an ensemble the whole cast worked seamlessly together, and no one put a foot out of place. They are all to be highly commended for both their individual and collective performances.
There are a lot of laughs in the play, and the cast is stellar. However, to call it comic genius (as some of the Melbourne reviews have) is a farce too far. If anything, Stone and co-writer Emily Barclay have strung together a series of cheap gags that are hard to miss. This show is a fun time, (especially the musical numbers) and if you can go along for the ride you will thoroughly enjoy it. If you are hoping for anything resembling The Government Inspector you will feel cheated.
If you’re up for the ride Simon Stone’s The Government Inspector is playing at Belvoir Street Theatre until the 18th of May.
For more information see: http://belvoir.com.au/productions/the-government-inspector/