Written in 1836, Nikolai Gogol’s work of political satire examines the absurdity and corruption of Imperial Russia. The play follows an unethical mayor, along with his equally immoral officials, attempting to prepare their provincial town for a visit from a government inspector. However, the inspector in question is travelling incognito and in typical nineteenth-century fashion, a case of mistaken identity leads to a whirlwind of chaos.
In The Birmingham Reparatory Theatre’s production, Gogol’s script is merely a skeleton for this ground-breaking show. Artistic Director Roxanna Silbert, formerly of the RSC and Paines Plough, is at the helm of a production aimed at a seamless integration of sign language and audio description. Unlike other shows where a trained British Sign Language performer is wedged on the side of the stage and deaf members of the audience are constantly craning their neck playing catch up, in The Government Inspector the performance is enhanced by its inclusion.
“The aesthetic of the stage is as satisfying as it is functional”
Silbert’s production is an attack on the senses, but one that engages every audience member whilst doing so. The grandeur of Ben and Max Ringham’s score is ideally suited to Ti Green’s née Anderson “Grand Government Hotel”. The aesthetic of the stage is as satisfying as it is functional. The constant frolicking up and down its majestic steps and elevator interludes ensure that your eyes are constantly on the move. Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design is considered and comically effective during the asides, and along with Timothy Bird’s videography the stage is abound with visual delights. Bird ought to have reassessed the the placement of the projection on the back wall as given Green’s imposing set, I often struggled to see the images in their entirety.
“Where the show fails as a piece of conventional theatre is in it’s mistreatment of Gogol’s more serious issues”
The show amplifies every possible action, which at first was somewhat jarring, as I found myself struggling to adjust to the exaggerated gestures and unconventional intonation. But as the vibrancy on stage continued I realised what Ramps On The Moon – the touring conglomerate – are trying to achieve. Their pioneering work is best exemplified in the dual partnership between Jean St Clair (Lyapkin-Tyapkin) and Rebekah Hinds (Superintendent). St Clair is profoundly deaf, yet those in the audience whose first language was not sign, were still able to understand her perfectly through Hinds’ immaculately timed delivery of Tyapkin’s lines. The integration of BSL gives a voice to the voiceless and paves the way for greater change in disability arts.
Where the show fails as a piece of conventional theatre is in its mistreatment of Gogol’s more serious issues. Life under the Tsar was seldom filled with exotic salmon and glamorous turquoise dresses for the serfdom class. Silbert hints at an ominous force at work but any hope of political significance is thwarted by her reliance on cheap gags and physical humour. By no means does the play’s unfilled conclusion take away from the innovative efforts of this company, but it prevents it from reaching its full potential.
Image credit: Robert Day via The Nottingham Playhouse
‘The Government Inspector’ is running at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 14th May. For more information see here.