Be careful what you wish for, they say. Irish theatre (like Irish culture more broadly) so fond of looking back, has shown little sign of confronting the parlous social, economic and political situation of the country since at least September 2008, let alone of giving direction for the future. Lavish period treatments of the bad old days have barely allowed the odd contemporary resonance ruffle their smooth exteriors. But in Roddy Doyle’s translation of Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece, The Government Inspector, there’s absolutely no possibility of avoiding the grim reality outside the theatre doors: this is who we are, how we got here, and why we’re still codding ourselves that we’re getting anywhere else. And it’s so sharp and so funny it hurts.
When the mayor and officials of a small provincial town get wind that a government inspector is due, fearful of their vicious and corrupt ways being reported back to St. Petersburg, they bestow their best little bribing ways on the government official in question – except, of course, they’ve got the wrong man.
Doyle has spoken of how the commission to translate Gogol a couple of years ago spoke to his interest in Russian literature, though he was keen to make it Irish. And how! It’s all in the language, of course. With the IMF arriving in town as he wrote, their visit denied by the leaders of the country until the deal was almost done, you can see how it must have been impossible not to write lines such as Don Wycherley’s Mayor’s fatuous denial ‘Let’s just get this straight here, lads. There’s no delegation. We haven’t asked for a delegation. There is no need for a delegation.’ Local and topical references build up, not just around brown envelopes, bail-outs and dig-outs, but more ominously and revealingly still, in the abiding taste for circumlocution, for euphemisms, above all for the nod and the wink and the facetious, worthless guarantee that continues to be accepted of Irish political leaders – ‘I’ll sort something out’.
This is very much an ensemble piece, and despite some half-dropped lines and little catches in timing, it is an ensemble that works very well together and will, I imagine, get stronger during this long-ish run. Don Wycherley’s strong-man mayor counters Ciaran O’Brien’s Jedward-ish Khlestakov, a strangely appropriate domestic fantasist figure too, with his ‘St Pete’s’ (or perhaps St Luke’s?) ways. And there’s room, too, for some small but great individual comic turns, notably by Damian Kearney and Clare Barrett. Conor Murphy’s superb set deserves a special mention, and helps give the play the internal energy and physicality it needs. Ingeniously unfolding, the hints of flat-pack assembly brilliantly support the set’s central conceit of the ultimate Irish dream, a house – here with its form well and truly knocked out of kilter as if by the monstrous twin forces of negative equity and shoddy builders. Placed on a revolve, and comprised partially of exposed metal framework and a small corner decked out with luxe wallpaper, the characters of the play dash dangerously about its shafts and beams and plain-view perils in and around the only constants of its contents: a bling-tastic chaise-longue and a mountain of stuffed grey rubbish sacks. A pair of extraordinary dresses on the mayor’s wife and daughter as they sit decorously on that chaise-longue and turn a blind eye to the violence that has paid for them, nicely link Catherine Fay’s costume design to the set’s punchy critique of Celtic Tiger aspirationalism.
This physical inventiveness goes beyond the stage, in fact. Make sure to buy the programme, for an unexpected treat from the cartoonist Martyn Turner, probably the most voluble and effective of our commentators on the national story. And be ready for the moment when the red-faced Mayor steps out to address the audience with the snarl, ‘What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves.’