The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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January 2019

The Government Inspector

Bill Risebero

We like plays about mistaken identity. When someone on stage assumes a disguise, we enjoy knowing something that the other characters don’t. We wonder how long the deception can continue, and we pleasurably anticipate the final unmasking. The Hampstead Players have given us many plays in which someone has purposefully set out to deceive: Viola for the sake of love, Duke Vincentio for political advantage, Face for financial gain.

But the protagonist of Nikolai Gogol’s Government Inspector is different. A lowly, penniless clerk in government service, Khlestakov is mistaken by rascally small-town officials for a high-ranking Inspector who has come to investigate corruption. An unwitting victim of mistaken identity, Khlestakov is an ‘innocent’ deceiver - though ‘unwitting’ does not necessarily mean unwilling to turn the mistake to advantage.

When the play was performed at court in 1836, the Tsar and his entourage - improbably, perhaps - laughed hugely at its depiction of corrupt governance and the mis-use of power. It became established as one of the great Russian satirical comedies. Matt Williams ‘tweaked’, as he said, an oldish English translation, modernising the language and pointing up some modern parallels, but his text for the Hampstead Players is, in essence, as Gogol wrote it, and still very relevant today

The Parish Church was hung with makeshift drapes, surrounding both stage and audience. It evoked, appropriately for the play’s Old Russian theme, the tent of a band of travelling players. The play is a large-scale ensemble piece, with 16 players playing 25 or more roles. One of the strengths of the production was how well they all interacted, with a vigour - at times, a freneticism - which suited the farcical, and often very funny, confusions of the plot. It is sometimes said that there are no small parts - only small actors - and here, everyone participated to the full.

At the centre of it, though, are two main roles. One is that of Anton Antonovich the corrupt Governor. Adrian Hughes presented him vividly: unpleasant, yes, but with a touch of pathos too. Dominating and officious, he oppressed and cheated the weak, doing it as a matter of routine entitlement. ‘If I have stolen from them’, he said, ‘I did it with no ill feeling’. Yet he grovelled before Khlestakov, congratulated himself at the thought of promotion and, when he realised how he had allowed himself to be taken in, he gave way to despair. Turning on the audience he shouted, ‘What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves!’  And, to some extent, we were.

The other main part, of course, is that of Khlestakov, which has been played by both Tony Hancock and Danny Kaye. Here, unexpectedly, it was a female role: Ivan had become Irina. And why not? Mary Clare’s excellent performance got to the root of it. From Khlestakov’s initial fear of meeting the Governor, to her dawning comprehension of what was happening, to her joyful readiness to enter into the spirit of the deception, her performance was a tour-de-force of expressiveness and energy, which seemed to me to meet Gogol’s own requirements for the role: ‘frankness, ingenuousness and simplicity’. Her readiness to go along with the deception - encouraged always by a likeable Harlequin as her clever though rascally servant Osip - is a very human characteristic.

For the sake of the love interest, the Governor’s daughter Marya would naturally need to change gender, becoming his son, Myles. Mike Gale played the part with a gentle humour, as a well-meaning geek, easy prey for the resourceful Irina Khlestakov. His mother, Anna Andreyevna, the Governor’s wife, a forceful Cara Pennock, was of sterner stuff. An expensively-dressed trophy wife, she dominated all around her, though Khlestakov’s amorous advances to her, more conventional in Gogol’s original, took both her - and us - by surprise.

The Governor was surrounded by a cabal of vividly-presented officials, corrupt or incompetent or both. A roguish Oscar Blend, as Artemi Filipovich the Public Health Director, was blasé about his patients: ‘If they die, they die!’ Later, in his interview with Irina, he proved a lecher almost worthy of the attentions of the #MeToo movement. Lyapkin-Tyapkin, the District Judge, has intellectual pretensions. David Gardner’s portrayal deftly caught his air of pompous detachment. Hannah Slater gave us a delightfully nervous and tongue-tied School Superintendent, clearly not up to her job, while Nicolas Holzapfel, as a ludicrously preening, posturing spin-doctor, delighted in bursting in on the group to bring bad news. Sarah Day and Jane Mayfield, as the two wealthy citizens Bobchinski and Dobchinski, were a kind of French and Saunders double-act, bickering about who would be first to impart their (totally spurious) news about the Inspector’s arrival - the mistake from which the whole sorry tale was to unfold.

Matthew Williams’ inventive direction gave us an energetic, engaging production wholly involving its enthusiastic audiences, and bringing out all the play’s light and shade. By turns it was loud or quiet, lively or reflective, pathetic or funny. I liked the modern ambience, emphasising the play’s continuing relevance, and the dramatic dumb-shows which began each act and ended the play. I particularly liked the scene in which the well-dined Hlestakov was introduced to the Governor’s family, a feast of humorous acting. But then I liked much else besides.

We misread the play if we think its only targets are corrupt officials. Gogol hoped that everyone would find something of themselves in it, that through the laughter we all should find cause for sorrow.

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