Two years ago, the New Wolsey Theatre and Graeae teamed up with Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse to produce a spectacular Threepenny Opera. At the time, the production offered a politically and artistically radical manifesto for the integration of Deaf and disabled artists within mainstream theatre programmes, arguing that accessibility should not be thought of as an add-on but as a full part of the artistic programme. Now, Ramps on the Moon delivers on that promise, bringing in two new partners (Sheffield Theatres and Theatre Royal Stratford East) to initiate a six-year programme of epic ensemble theatre, beginning with Birmingham Rep’s offering: Roxana Silbert’s hysterical take on The Government Inspector.
As with The Threepenny Opera, the producers have cannily chosen a play that foregrounds the plight of the disenfranchised; this isn’t a show about disability issues, but one that makes explicit the institutional structures that create and exploit disadvantage. One of the production’s more shocking moments comes as David Carlyle’s Mayor pushes a wheelchair-bound protester offstage and tips her onto the floor to shut her up; when the pressure builds, those in authority will use whatever advantage they can. The Mayor may pay lip-service to public service, but doesn’t even notice when he obstructs the sightlines of characters dependent on signing to communicate. As an indictment of civic hypocrisy, the production could hardly be more timely.
Gogol’s play is built on miscommunication, with the report of the imminent arrival of an Inspector followed by the mistaken identification of a posh, but penniless and opportunistic, young man as the incognito official. Silbert’s production layers on the possibilities for miscommunication offered by the plethora of communication technologies on stage: Amanda Wright’s unobtrusive audio description is interrupted when the Mayor takes her to task for her lack of diligence; Jean St Clair’s Deaf Judge has to battle with her verbal interpreter (Rebekah Hinds) being inattentive or too scared to come into a meeting; the surtitles refuse to translate the German-speaking Dr Gibner (Ewan Marshall). When St Clair is left alone with Robin Morrissey’s Khlestakov, posing as the Inspector, she draws attention to the surtitles as a translation alternative, but they promptly break down, leaving the two hilariously trying to negotiate a bribe through gesture.
Ti Green’s design draws unashamedly on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which brilliantly recasts Russian civic hierarchies as a staffing issue. The Mayor’s glamorous wife Anna and daughter Maria take the elevator between levels (a beautiful running joke makes the most of the lift muzak) while an army of porters and police officers open doors and generally make the lives of the ruling class as easy as possible. By casting the production’s two BSL interpreters (Becky Barry and Daryl Jackson) as a porter and police officer, the interpreters become both visible and invisible; they are implicated in and comment on the action, but are also ignored as beneath the notice of most of the cast. Barry and Jackson take on a choric role, mocking their superiors gently (Jackson’s obscene misinterpretation of the ‘balls’ that the ladies of the house long for is a highlight). The whole all serves to evoke Fawlty Towers, the Mayor channelling the Torquay hotelier’s manic physicality, hubristic snobbery and, ultimately, collapse into humiliation.
It’s impossible to do justice to the sheer volume of information to take in – audio description, signing, surtitles, a video wall and a stage crowded with performers – or to how achingly funny the whole is. Morrissey’s Khlestakov is both charming and a git of the highest order, and in a long set-piece describing his achievement in St Petersburg he has the village eating out of his hand. Anna (Kiruna Stamell) and Maria (Francesca Mills) swoon over him, setting up a beautifully judged conflict between the daughter who leaps twice her body height to wrap herself around her new beau and the mother flashing her legs in the background while pretending to give her approval. From the pratfalls of Stephen Collins’s Bobchinsky to the affectations of Richard Clews’s Khlopov, the elaborate BSL evocations of rabbit genocide offered by the Judge to the matter-of-fact postal fraud conducted by Sophie Stone’s Postmaster, the comic types are perfectly judged and varied.
Yet amid the hilarity of a town struggling to buy its right to continue exploiting those lower in the pecking order, Silbert sounds moments of warning. The self-serving Zemlyanika (Simon Startin) informs freely on his neighbours until he realises that Khlestakov is taking note of his children’s names, at which his voice trails off in a moment of perfect horror. The Muslim shopkeeper (Aaron Virdee) finds himself trapped alone with the Mayor against whom he has made a complaint. Even the BSL interpreters give up and shrug when a petitioner finds himself struggling to find the appropriate register to address his superiors. When the auditors turn up, the corrupt administrators whitewash their acts and even the put-upon fall in line; and when the charade falls apart, everyone else has someone else to blame. If the production’s sympathies lie with anyone, it is with the near-faceless mass of shopkeepers who are pointedly excluded from the hotel. However you communicate, this production suggests, you can’t hear from the people you don’t let in the room.
The Government Inspector is on at the Nottingham Playhouse until 14th May 2016. Click here for tickets.