Nikolai Gogol – a contemporary of Russian literature’s other greats Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev – spawned a species of surrealist writing that would go on to inspire generations of word weavers. Most notably the iconic Mikhail Bulgakov for his fantastical depiction of Soviet living: The Master and Margarita. One only has to read a few opening paragraphs of any Gogol story to realise the man was of an entirely different ilk to those that gave us the equally – but differently – wonderful Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment and Fathers and Sons (how little parent-child relationships have changed since nineteenth century Russia!).
Gogol – as playful name suggest – is a joker. Depicting the rural classes of Russia as ludicrous, superstitious and simple folk through slapstick and exaggeration, he also paints them with a fondness and gives us a vista onto a world very few today can imagine.
His play the Government Inspector may not have the magical elements of the Master and Margarita or his Ukrainian Tales but – like Bulgakov’s seminal work – makes fun of the shambolic and corrupt state of affairs of that spectacular nation. Again, how little things have changed since nineteenth century.
Somewhere in deepest, darkest, most forgotten Russia a town of wayward teachers, postmasters, judges and governors squabble, babble and lead their lives as they please, out of eye shot of the capital. Rumour has it that Petersburg is sending an inspector – a certain travelling gentleman ensconced in room number five at the inn – to spy and snoop and dish dirt on the dodgy dealings of the townsfolk. Scheming, sycophancy, prevaricating and prank playing ensue, with dandy Khlestakov (definitely not the inspector they take him to be) duping them out of cash and seducing wives and daughters.
The play’s premise lends itself wonderfully to a British reworking with all its caricatures and buffoons. Charm Offensive’s Gavin McAlinden has made a gallant effort in adapting and directing this production at the Shaw Theatre – one of London’s least atmospheric venues – as part of Camden Fringe: think Little Britain a long, long time ago.
In the style true to our Bard, gender roles are reversed with the men taking the female parts and vice versa: a perfect choice given the play’s farcical tone.
Unfortunately, like Little Britain, the pantomime effect wears thin and soon begins to grate: I don’t think I have ever watched a play where one hundred percent of the cast is laughing but none of the audience is.
The actors themselves varied incredibly. Emma Jane Sullivan carried off the role of the lothario from Petersburg superbly – it would not be difficult to imagine her as an excellent Rosalind in a prominent production. Jennie Rich was funny as the dry and exasperated Osip, servant to our main man, and Marina Anikitos was bang on as the randy old postmaster. The rest of the acting ranged from unremarkable, amateurish to cringe worthy. But the cast must be commended for the sheer effort and genuine enthusiasm they performed with.
As such a voracious consumer of all things Ruski, I am slowly becoming tired of the British interpretations of Russian classics: the Slavic world I create in my head from reading the texts jarring with the very Anglicised product I watch on stage or in a film. Like Bernard Rose’s 1997 film version of Anna Karenina starring Sophie Morceau as Anna K and Sean Bean as Vronsky: the love that ruins her. Enjoyable and impressive a production may be, I can’t help thinking I am missing out on some essential essence of the story or spirit of the characters. Then again, isn’t the purpose of art to constantly re-interpret and see things from wholly different perspectives?
Previous argument notwithstanding, I will not be able to resist seeing this year’s film version of Anna Karenina: a substantial cast, an unobvious choice of male lead (have you heard of Aaron Johnson?) and most important: one of the modern age’s most superb playwrights – Tom Stoppard – has written the screenplay. From September 7th.
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