Gogol’s Goblins

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

By Michael Billington for The Guardian, 2nd February 1985 (talking about The Government Inspector)

THE LAST production of The Government Inspector I saw was at the Moscow Satire Theatre where the play became a toothless farce with Khlestakov portrayed as a camp dandy. Nothing could be further from Richard Eyre’s new production at the Olivier which, with exuberant panache treats Gogol’s masterpiece as a nightmarish comedy about communal terror and individual self-delusion; and even if Rik Mayall makes the hero too much a raging psychopath his performance is still outstandingly funny.

John Gunter’s epic set, as so often, sets the mood. The Olivier stage is covered with a vast ream of yellowing bureaucratic parchment in which giant bluebottles are permanently trapped. In a lightning flash the image of Nicholas I is projected on the paper, growing ever larger until it and the document disintegrate: from behind it, in a cloud of smoke, emerges a tablefull of moth eaten provincial officials who learn that the Government Inspector is on his way.

Immediately ‘this sounds the keynote ‘Eyre’s production: we are, in a society governed by paper, fear and paranoia. As Nabokov once pointed out, Gogol’s play is not a realistic study of provincial Russia (of which the author had seen very little) it is, he said, a private nightmare peopled with Gogol’s own incomparable goblins.

Having established a mood of phantasmagoria and panic (where Jim Broadbent’s Governor sticks a tricornshaped hatbox on his head instead of the hat), Eyre pulls his next trick by introducing a Khlestakov who is young violent and batty.

In the past, Scofield and Ian Richardson have played the St Petersburg clerk dazzlingly as an ageing fop. Rik Mayall, with hair “like a rabbit on fire” and ballooning check trousers, makes him a seething nonentity suffering the wildest delusions of grandeur.

One sees the point that Mayall and Eyre are making: a society governed by fear is ripe for appropriation by a lunatic. And Mayall is both chilling and funny in the way he shows (as Michael Chekhov apparently did in Stanislavski’s production) an insecure booby turning into a demented psychotic under the influence of flattery.

By pushing the idea of lunacy so far, however, this interpretation undercuts the other characters. When the Governor’s wife says, “He’s got that St Petersburg air – he looked so suave and sophisticated” you feel she is the one who wants locking up because what we have actually seen is a madman on the brink.

A good idea, about the fanatical Russian subservience to power, is pushed beyond the limit; and when Mr Mayall hides from Peter Blythe’s bribing Charity Commissioner and obscenely pushes his pinkies through the wainscot we are close to the realm of Spike Milligan’s Oblomov where other actors are served up as feeds to the star. Restraint, however, is not a word in Mr Mayall’s vocabulary; and even though his technique is limited he offers a memorable final image as (in a speech from Dead Souls) he floats off into the stratosphere crying, “Every country, every empire – they make way for me,”

This is one of several liberties taken by Adrian Mitchell’s excellent new version which finds distinct idioms for each character and which contains more funny lines than I remember. (“Women,” spits out of the Governor chauvinistically to his wife and daughter, “That one word sums you up”). And even if Mr Eyre’s production gives Mayall too much rope Jim Broadbent is superb as the Governor with lavatory-brush hair and quaking embonpoint; Rosemary Martin as his wife is all dowdy lust.

Though it is slightly over the top, this production actually gets closer than any version I have seen to the notion of people living out a Russian nightmare. When finally the whole petrified community is shunted into the shadows at the arrival of the real Government Inspector you feel the authentic frisson of living under a dictatorship.