Interlopers From No-Man’s-Land

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

By John Peter for The Sunday Times, 3rd February 1985

Nikolai Gogol had the imagination of a surrealist clown and the soul of a prophet, and The Government Inspector (Olivier) was written jointly by both of them. There was a famous amateur production in Moscow in 1860 in which Dostoyevsky played the Postmaster: a fact that should alert us to the essential quality of Gogol’s genius, which was an ability to distil the grotesque from the mundane.

There is a monstrous plausibility in this tale of corrupt provincial officials cringing in front of a penniless nobody, mistaking him for a government inspector from distant St. Petersburg. It is not a British situation: this country has always been rich, and never knew the crushing economic and spiritual burden of a large and incompetent bureaucracy. This is the privilege of poor countries which have undeveloped economies and overdeveloped national egos, together with a semi-educated middleclass who are only employable as unproductive pen-pushers.

Gogol observed these people with a lethally penetrating eye: The Government Inspector is a black and fantastical farce unfolding in a setting which is horribly real. Richard Eyre’s production bears the marks of a deeply intelligent director who can’t quite believe that such creatures can really exist. The Olivier stage is set with huge bundles of documents and pencils the size of telegraph poles; and out of a cloud of stage smoke a smaller set is wheeled forward, with a sloping floor as in an Expressionist painting. One of the figures round the governor’s table turns out to be a dummy. You could hardly do more to draw attention to the unreality of what follows: it’s like putting up a notice which reads: “Proceed with caution – imagination at work overhead!”

Meanwhile, Gogol’s characters come irrepressibly to life: Jim Broadbent’s governor, lvor Roberts’s judge and Peter Blythe’s charity commissioner are exquisitely etched little portraits of small-time crooks terrified into trying to think big. Opposite them, Rik Mayall plays the impostor as if he’d stepped out of a different nightmare: a featherbrained twit in whom natural obtuseness and phoney gentility hold an uneasy alliance.

This makes it sound as if he were giving a real performance; but that isn’t quite what happens. What we get is an agile cabaret turn, delivered with impersonal relish and the impeccable timing of a sadistic Swiss watch. Mayall is not playing Khlestakov as if he were a real man, which is how Gogol describes him in his notes, but as a tenuous collection of mannerisms: a gimlet-eyed stare, a braying silly-ass laugh, and a way of looking demented like policemen in old British film comedies. The result is that he never looks real; and we never have the feeling, essential if this play is to work, that he might at any moment get found out.

This is a remarkable debut here by someone whose straight acting experience in the theatre is virtually nil; but the role needs a virtuoso actor; and I don’t think the National is so hard up for talent that it has to cast a famous TV comic as audience bait.