Upstaged by the Set
by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog
By Irving Wardle for The Times, 2nd February 1985
The Government Inspector Olivier Theatre
Many spectators who have been richly entertained by British revivals of this piece as a smalltown social satire must have shrugged off Gogol’s efforts to claim it as a vision of judgment. The idea does not look so farfetched in the light of Richard Eyre’s production, which amounts to our first acknowledgment of the play’s epic status in mainland Europe.
The enlarged scale is instantly declared in John Gunter’s amazing set: a recessed curtain composed of magnified documents that overflow into giant files on the side stages, with lamppost-sized pencils projecting from barrels and bloated monster flies crawling over the blanched desert of rotting paperwork.
On to this overwhelming image of Tsarist bureaucracy is projected the face of the inspector, first seen in profile, and then turning to confront the audience as a wrathful demon as curtain rises amid thunderclaps to reveal the Govenor and his cronies in a smoke-shrouded office. They have some reason to be shivering in their shoes at the announcement that the imperial official is on his way.
Fear runs through the production to a degree far beyond the call of satire; but its effect is often to intensify the comedy.
But with sheer panic driving out common sense, there is nothing improbable in the sight of Jim Broadbent and Rik Mayall outdoing each other in grovelling courtesies.
That is one early example of the grotesque style which develops to the grand scale as the evening progresses. Sometimes it is simply exhilarating, as where Khlestakov’s reveries of social glory call forth a court of resplendent mutes on the side stages in answer to his fantasy.
In the drunk scene, Khlestakov hardly touches a drop; instead he gets drunk on the idea of power, and ends up bestriding a table, on the same level as a portrait of the Tsar (whose cold eyes seem to be following the characters’ every move), while the Governor and his guests parrot his words and shrink into a cowering heap.
After the main bribery scene come the petitioning merchants, and Khlestakov’s moment of triumph turns to nightmare (a malignant echo of his previous dream) as a ragged emblem of starving Russia appears on the threshhold, to a background of mass lamentation, to be cast out into the night.
When the awful truth of the fraud finally comes out, the Governor and his fellow rogues are impaled on David Hersey’s stabbing side-lights, guilty creatures awaiting a sentence of damnation.
The production has run into a dilemma which is more common on the continental stage than it is over here: namely the tendency for a bold concept and epic design to make actors look small.
Performances, on the whole, arc entirely overshadowed by the production. The women are particularly weak: and even Ron Pember (Osip) and Peter Blvthe (as the charity commissioner) show little of their usual comic flair.
There is a great deal of inventive group business, this being a highly-drilled show anyway. But the sight of Mr Broadbent cramming on a hat box instead of a hat, and sending up a prayer as if gripped by constipation, is offset by his strain and over-deliberation elsewhere.
Normally I deplore the practice of importing television stars into permanent companies, but must admit that Rik Mayall’s Khlestakov salvages the acting honours on this occasion. A toothy playboy at first glance, performing preening little dance steps in his pegtop trousers, lie also has reserves of ruthless appetite that take him from lightweight comedy to the heights of the grotesque with no discernible break. Listen to that cackling laugh changing into a homicidal bark. He is fast, funny, and half deranged. He also supplies a vital link between the sombre vision of the production and the life of its individual characters: a comic performance on the heroic scale.