Bursting out of left-field with a surreal dream sequence which blends waves of kitschy Theremin with the kind of visual non-sequiturs we’ve come to expect from a project with Julian Barratt attached to it, the Young Vic’s welcome revival of Government Inspector is incredibly appealing. With a sharp new adaptation by David Harrower which plays free and easy with Gogol’s mighty satire while staying true to its dreamlike grotesquery, this production should leave audiences in no doubt that Government Inspector is one of the finest comedies ever written.
Inspired by an amusing anecdote by Pushkin, Gogol left his penchant for the supernatural at the door and created a brutal slug to the guts of Russia’s political corruption and an indictment of the farcical extents of human greed. Barratt plays the Mayor of a remote town soaked in a culture of bribery and the abuse of its working classes, suddenly thrown into chaos by the supposed arrival of the titular character. A case of mistaken identity places the chancing buffoon Khlestakov (Kyle Soller) in this fortunate position, which he enthusiastically wrings for all he can get. The great pleasure of Gogol’s play derives from the audience’s privileged perspective, as we watch the monstrous officials bow and scrape to his every whim.
Soller impresses as the brattish ersatz inspector, he plays the part like a strange, stretched child, vaunting one moment and simpering the next. His seduction of the Mayor’s wife and daughter is richly comic, and his interaction with his beleaguered manservant Osip (nicely underplayed by Callum Dixon) is perfect. Soller’s finest moment comes at the reception at the Mayor’s house, in which Khlestakov’s boasting reaches its height, where he finds a sympathetic note in the vast ambitions of a very pathetic man.
Barratt seems to take time to gear up to his role as the Mayor, and his early scenes in particular feel flatter than you would expect from such a quality comic performer, but by the final scenes he embodies the increasing hysteria of a broken man with neurotic brilliance. Among such a strong supporting cast, however, including a fantastic turn by Bruce MacKinnon as the dog-obsessed Judge, he occasionally has trouble standing out.
Richard Jones’ direction is similarly mixed, and though scenes of physical comedy are highly inventive, elsewhere the action lacks pace and too many brilliant lines are thrown away. He is well supported by Miriam Buether’s hyper-real design, which reimagines the ghastly town of Gogol’s original as a sickly-neon 70’s nightmare. The elements are all in place for this production to truly slay its audience, one hopes that last night it was only warming up.