Gogol, Still a Winner

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

By Milton Shulman for The Standard, 1st February 1985

Richard Eyre’s exuberant production of The Government Inspector by Gogol at the Olivier has made sure that an audience will know what it is all about.

It is played against an impressive back-drop des Wined by John Gunter displaying massive replicas of yellowing files, pencils and even somnolent flies. This is the paraphernalia of bureaucracy.

It was Gogol’s intention to ridicule the corrupt officials in Russia in 1836 and in the process he managed to produce one of the most endurable comedies ever written.

It is with deep dismay that the bureaucrats in a provicincial town learn that an Inspector from St. Petersburg will arrive incognito to investigate their affairs.

Since bribery has been the chief activity of these officials, resulting in filthy streets, incompetent schools, hopeless hospitals and chaotic accounts, they set out to fawn and flatter their way into the good books of the man they beieve is the disguised Inspector.

He happens to be an impecunious clerk with a haughty and arrogant manner, who has gambled away all his money and, with his servant, is on the verge of starvation.

Puzzled at first by the deference he is being paid by the Governor, the offer of a room in the Governor’s house, and the lavish hospitality, being showered upon him, the clerk, Ivan Khlestakov, slowly realises he is on to a good thing. He starts to invent spurious connections with the nobility and famous literary figures, while encouraging a judge, the postmaster, and various landowners to hand over money to keep him quiet about their iniquities. He is even offered the Governor’s daughter in marriage.

In its depiction of indolent, inefficient and corrupt officials galvanised into panic to protect themselves, Richard Eyre’s production provides a hilarious buzz of inept characters trying to plot themsleves out of trouble.

Jim Broadbent, as the Governor, gives a marvellous impression of booming, bungling officialdom, bullying underlings and crawling abjectly before anyone above him in the hierarchy.

Rik Mayall, tugging at his recalcitrant hair and manipulating his body into a bewildering assortment of suplicating, domineering and farcical postures, blends echoes of the impertinence of Tony Hancock with the insouciance of W.C. Fields in his occasionally over-the-top portrayal of a clerk taking advantage of the corrupt citizens grovelling at his feet.

Unfortunately, the adapter, Adrian Mitchell, has decided that some stern, oral message about the evil of society had to be imposed on Gogol’s straightforward satire and the inexplicable intrusion of the meteorological omens, cloaked figures of doom and a portentous speech from a different Gogol play, left one feeling rather guilty that one had laughed so much at Gogol’s capering caricatures.