Google your Gogol: Belvoir’s The Government Inspector

If you've followed my blog over the past few years, you’ll know that I take issue with a lot of Simon Stone’s work. As much as I disagree with some of the ideas in his productions, the broader socio-cultural implications of his themes and the depiction of women, as well as his predilection for using the same cast members time and again, I find it hard to fault his stagecraft, the theatricality of each and every one of his pieces. The Government Inspector is no exception. A late and much-publicised replacement for The Philadelphia Story, it is in many ways a showcase of Stone’s work at Belvoir (and, indeed, in Sydney) in the three years since his The Wild Duck. Playing at Belvoir, this co-production with Malthouse Theatre takes Gogol’s 1836 play and raises it one, turning it into a behind-the-scenes romp which only Stone could envisage.
A metatheatrical self-parody, it tells the story of a group of actors who were going to perform The Philadelphia Story, directed by Simon Stone. When it appears the rights are not going to be granted, the director quits. An actor dies. Another walks. Contemplating what they’re going to do, they remember an Uzbekistani director who did a production of The Government Inspector and contact him to direct theirs. A case of mistaken identity completes the story and Stone’s play unfolds in a kind of madcap glory which only Gogol could have devised (well, sort of).

Set upon Ralph Myers’ revolving set – one part backstage, one part showbiz glitz – the production delights in a kind of conscious self-parody, knowingly sending up Stone’s own trademark flourishes (black-and-white sets, a pair of shoes on the edge of the revolve, the same actors) and comes in various tones of beige and grey, before erupting into an all-singing all-dancing Technicolour musical of Gogol’s play. Costumed by the ever-inventive Mel Page, the mechanics of quick-changes (lots of zips and Velcro) are laid bare before the audience and we delight in the complicity of creating the illusion of theatre. Paul Jackson’s lighting is similarly functional in the first half but goes into overdrive in the musical second. Stefan Gregory’s compositions – from the Zorba-esque scene-change music to the Broadway-pastiche highlights-only micro-musical – are spot on, and contains perhaps some of his best work (one hopes there is an original cast album).
The cast are, essentially, playing caricatures of themselves, and seem to be having an inordinate amount of fun doing so. Greg Stone’s antagonistic dreamer (“I could’ve been in ‘La Miz’”) performs in the musical without his trousers; Robert Menzies’ turn as the ‘older character actor’ is surprisingly warm underneath the irascible exterior; Mitchell Butel is superb as the Helpmann Award-winning scene stealer; Gareth Davies plays, well, Gareth Davies, and perhaps channels more than a bit of Stone himself (and perhaps Benedict Andrews) in the process. Zahra Newman is the leading lady-cum-diva as well as Dolores, the cleaner who perhaps instigates the whole charade in the first place; Eryn Jean Norvill as the film-star who wants to be in The Lion King is hilariously blonde, but it is Fayssal Bazzi’s quietly understated performance as the shy nerdy actor that is the masterstroke here, amongst all the blustering, posturing and grandstanding.
Billed by Belvoir as “the play that was never meant to happen,” the script by Stone and real-life partner Emily Barclay pokes fun at the entire show’s very existence, at themselves, at Belvoir, and at the wider Sydney theatre scene with a kind of glee. At times you could, perhaps, be forgiven for mistaking it for a university revue, albeit one that is remarkably slick and polished. The jokes veer towards the merciless at times, the caricatures perhaps too close to the bone to be truly comfortable, but in a way, the show is such a riot, so over the top that it doesn’t seem to matter. In the program, Ralph Myers writes how the parallels between Gogol’s story and the situation Belvoir and Malthouse found themselves in kept appearing the further they got through the rehearsal period. This is built upon in the production itself (nods to the Death of a Salesman debacle, and Hamlet-without-Hamlet) but becomes something else entirely when Myers writes “Simon brought on as a writing partner his real-life partner Emily Barclay. We considered not crediting her at all as a nod the Barrys, but that seemed perverse.” Not just perverse, but malicious and cruel, unethical and not really funny at all. There are, as always, plenty of things wrong with this production, some of which are critiqued within the show itself by the characters, but in the broad scheme of things they don’t really matter that much.
While certainly a diverting and enjoyable eighty-minutes, it did drag and lose its madcap momentum towards the end. But for what could be Stone’s last production in Sydney for some time, the play is, as many reviews have previously pointed out, uncharacteristically close to Gogol’s original for a SimonStone production. It mightn’t be a masterpiece, it mightn’t be The Government Inspector in Gogol’s words, but it’s a bit of fun and sometimes that’s all that counts.

Theatre playlist: 17. Can Can, from Anna Karenina, Dario Marianelli

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