Friday, April 25, 2014

The Government Inspector

Photo by Pia Johnson

Belvoir and Malthouse Theatre present THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR by Simon Stone with Emily Barclay, devised with the cast. Featuring a short musical by Stefan Gregory. Inspired by Nikolai Gogol. At the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills.

An actor, Robert Menzies, in costume, beckons the stage management to dim the auditorium lights and focus the stage lights on him. Mr Menzies with an apologetic speech, referencing the copyright dilemmas that the Belvoir Theatre Company has had in its recent past, (most notably, around Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN) and now again for this production 'spot', i.e. the unavailability of the performance rights to the announced production of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, by Philip Barry and his co-author Ellen Barry, tells us that THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR by Nikolai Gogol, the announced substitute, too, will not, now, be given.

This is not a consequence of further legal entanglements, but rather an idea that struck the director of the project Simon Stone, and his company of artists, as reported by Ralph Myers in his program note, that while attempting to adapt this 178 year old Russian play (some call the Gogol work a Masterpiece), that:
... there were clear parallels between our predicament and the plot of the play we were working on: a letter arrives that throws a community into panic. ... why not make a show about exactly this - a group of theatre-makers being thwarted at every turn in their mission to get their show on?"
Thwarted at every turn!?

Now, despite, that the "parallels" between the characters and their political complications/context in the Gogol play are immensely different from the Belvoir/Malthouse characters and situation, and that it thus appears , really, a bit of a Munchausen Syndrome stretch of a justifying imagination:
…Over the following weeks of talking and writing and rehearsal, we eventually arrived at the show you see tonight" and "It was genuinely great fun making ... hair-raising, but fun.
Mr Menzies tells us of more "disasters" that have struck the company, some of them palpably untrue (such as the death of one of the actors [Gareth Davies] and the disappearance of the original director [Simon Stone], and the exciting prospect of an avant-garde Eastern European Director taking charge), so, that if any of us feel that we would like our money returned as a consequence to what amounts to 'fraudulent' advertising of this production, the least of which may be any concern we have about the actual writer, the cast and even the director, could return to the Box Office and seek monetary redress. Some of us find the topical self-referencing speech hilarious and promising, and beside the fact that all of us, about half a theatre-full, had been apprised of all these 'factions' well before - word of mouth and press coverage - it did not come as a surprise that none of us elected to leave the building with our money back in our pockets. Mr Menzies is grateful.

He signals the stage-management, and with the wonderfully comic musical composition by Stefan Gregory, that cover the scene shifts, we are segued with the revolve of the set (by Ralph Myers) and shift of lighting (Paul Jackson) back stage, to the disconsolate 'actors' (Costumed by Mel Page), all using their own names: Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone and, of course, Robert Menzies, and presenting not themselves but impersonations of 'classic' comic alter-ego types. There is such a theatrical chaos of noise and over-layered chatter with some comic 'zingers' zooming out at us, the energy and exciting pulse of a throwback to remembered affects of the Marx Brothers film classics (believe it or not, too young to have caught their famous Broadway Shows) - say, DUCK SOUP (1933), A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935), and other comic vehicles of a similar nature, come joyfully back.

It is the lively commitment and skill of the actors that keep this fairly flimsy, but funny, work afloat - the writing is not as good as the acting, neither in content or 'spine' or cultural satire (unlike the original). Ms Newman displays all of the elan of a comic actress of some stylishness in her several 'turns' at character (much more in command and ease, it seemed to me, that in her Amanda of PRIVATE LIVES) - every vocal and physical gesture finessed to a delightful effect. Mr Butel, harnesses a vain, narcissistic temperament to a kind of frightening perfection (he has obviously had the opportunity to watch some masters at work- one presumes, and hopes). Mr Davies has, at last, an opportunity to create and present a number of 'people' that allow his gift as a comedian of some intelligent, verbal dexterity, gifted with effortless timing, to entertain us without subverting the play (the play, here, is, partly, his invention, I presume). Ms Norvill, in a brunette bobbed wig, is unrecognisable as to her last incarnation as Juliet, for the Sydney Theatre Company (ROMEO AND JULIET), last year, as she gives, it seemed to me, a very consistent and hilarious homage to the Olive character (Jennifer Tilly) from the Woody Allen film, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994). Mr Bazzi takes on the dumb actor ingenue well, scoring laughs galore with a precisely delayed sense of timing, while Mr (G) Stone and Menzies give some grounding support in zones of less comic stratospherics. Their relative contrasts in support of the zaniness of the others are a necessary ballast for the comedy.

The play written by Mr (S) Stone and Ms Barclay, assisted by the actors, begins with much comic flair and promise, as the actors are so adeptly energised, but, unfortunately, without a better prepared contemporary satirical structure and sense of a bigger world than just actors back stage, even at only 80 minutes, without interval, it reached, for me a kind of comic plateau, and began to tire in its invention. The performance sat 'still' in its gags and caricatures, and did not really keep its fired-rocket trajectory going, getting no real boost of comic momentum from 'the short musical' by Stefan Gregory that was a promised capper to this writing, for neither the lyrics or the staging of these episodes (Choreography, by Lucy Guerin), attract or accrue hilarity, and musically Mr Gregory does not top the glories of his scene-change score and arrangements (- the play-out music score, at the conclusion of the show, was a welcome return to the comic, sonic, possibilities of the production.) One could not help but to think back to the tireless writing invention of the recent comic farce of NOISES OFF by Michael Frayn, right to its very end, and the pertinent, comic and savvy text of Bruce Norris' CLYBOURNE PARK, that we had seen earlier this year, in Sydney, and maybe regret, a little (a lot?) what we were experiencing now.

On a Saturday in Sydney, having read the new THE SATURDAY PAPER, and such articles as: Exporting anti-gay churches; Rudd's new plot - lead the UN; Oscar's Lore (the Oscar Pistorius trial); the Vandalising of the ABC; the 'branding' of ANZAC; an article about Barry O'Farrell called Having a Barry; recalling The Crown Prince of Sydney Harbour: James Packer; The Cardinal that got away, Cardinal Pell; the ICAC investigation and the Obeid family and the trusted Arthur Sinodinos; the mining industry and its leading citizenry; and the furthering of the debate around climate change (or not); the fulminations of our Federal Attorney-General and Arts Minister, the Honourable Mr Brandis; the policy of our government towards international refugees and the Honourable Scott Morrison; the new probes into the CIA actions in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, by a US Senate committee led by Dianne Feinstein; and the alarming developments and dilemmas in Africa and South America; and, perilously worse, the situation in the Ukraine with Russia and Vladimir Putin;  I wondered whether I, sitting in the second most important theatre in Sydney, Belvoir, was watching this so-called version of THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR (the original Gogol being a withering and dangerous - for the writer and, probably, the actors, too - critique of the society he was living in - set in the Ukraine, by the way) began to feel we, in that audience were living in a parallel universe. I kept asking after the comedy had reached a kind of plateau of expectedness, just short of half-way through, and no longer a powerful enough distraction, whether what I and the audience were experiencing was what it might have been like to be listening to Nero play his violin while Rome was burning, or whether I was, since I am living in the fifth most expensive city in the world, living a life similar to the elite in District One: the Capitol, in the dystopian post-apocalytic nation of Panem, in an episode from Suzanne Collin's THE HUNGER GAMES?

To have Gogol's famous, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, which Gogol himself stated was written to arouse the hierarchy, a society:
In THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR I made up my mind to gather together into one pile all that in Russia was bad, as I then knew it, all the injustices, such as are done in those places and on these occasions, where most of all justice is demanded , and in one go laugh at everything.[1]
to be reduced to a back-stage comedy about the vanities and idiosyncrasies of a self-absorbed collection of non-entities (ashamedly, for me, actors), seemed to be a failure of vision and social responsibility. "Is Rome Burning?", I asked the Belvoir community, both the artists and the audience, as I sat in the political comfort of a Sydney Theatre, knowing that a bus service was going to take me safely home, afterwards. Look at the world outside this building, I cogitated, and despite the comfort of the reliability of my bus service, I came to the conclusion: "Rome" is burning!!!!!

 Nikolai Gogol knew his society was "burning" and decided to write something (more) to accuse the responsible and, hopefully, provoke change. What has this company done in appropriating Gogol's play title and then give us this work by Mr Stone, Barclay and Company? Not much, except to keep us entertained/comatosed, relaxed and comfortable, with a 'bread and circus' work. As funny as this production maybe, and it only is, really, if you think the concerns of actors are funny, it seems to be a very hollow work in the context of the world we are living through and Mr Gogol's original play. I felt that ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY had a fairly lightweight pre-occupation, but in relative values to the Belvoir's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, it is, in Australian writing terms, a play of social revolution and compassion. (Mr Gow should fear exile from this Abbott led government, for if you don't agree with him/it, then, you must be against him, us - you must be very un-Australian.)

There was, for me, reading an interview in THE SATURDAY PAPER (April 12-18, 2014) of the little-known University of New South Wales philosopher, Mary Zournazi, and the German filmmaker Wim Wenders by Paola Totaro about their book, INVENTING PEACE, a sobering kind of crystallisation of my searching for a way of thinking about the present theatre world I am involved with as an audience (and a maker).

As we prepare to leave - Wenders is keen to join an old colleague for a drink downstairs - I ask him if I'm right to read a subtext of apology, and perhaps even melancholy, about the film industry, his industry, in the book. 
The silence is momentarily terrifying but suddenly his hands, clasped quietly in his lap throughout the evening, come to life and the volume of his voice rises perceptibly. 
'My industry is basically devoid of any ethics,' he says, 'I'm afraid to say that this was once part of filmmaking, that it was considered an ethical process. But basically today it does not include that anymore.'
'And, yes, there is a melancholy. Yes there is, because in the time I have lived cinema, most cinema turned away from a way of expression to a product. And a product, as such, needs to be sold, whereas an expression needs to be told. Cinema is not about telling anymore, it is about selling.'
Can I paraphrase, Mr Wenders words, about my experience of Sydney Theatre, today?
And, yes, there is a melancholy. I have a melancholy. Yes I have, because in the time I have experienced theatre in Sydney, most theatre has turned away from a way of expressing the concerns of our society to, instead, a marketable product. And a product, as such, needs to be sold, whereas an expression of an open inspection of our society needs to be told. Theatre in Sydney, is mostly, not telling anymore, it is about selling - getting the bums on seats at any ethical cost.
Yes, I can.

(There is, showing, at present in Sydney, a completely whimsical and amusing film called, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, directed by stylist/auteur, Wes Anderson. In the middle of this confection, the hilarity stops still, momentarily, with a scene between Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his assistant, the lobby boy, the Young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), as the young Zero explains his origin as a refugee, after imprisonment and torture, fleeing his war torn country to explain his lack of proper paper work, when crossing borders. It is a scene that was so pertinent to my/our society's conscience concerning our Federal Immigration Department's policy and enforcement practice, that I felt extremely uncomfortable and politically 'guilty'- squirming a little in my seat. The film, then, snapped back from this pause, this moment of contemporary reality, into its artistic jocular mayhem. If only THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR at Belvoir had one of its characters/actors find a way to be just as pertinent, in all their funny invention, I may have been happier. Maturity is earned, I guess.)

The Belvoir's, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, is a funny show for some of the time. The actors are terrific. It's just that the actual text is extraordinarily disappointing in its concerns, particularly since it is wearing, carrying, such a significant title, and suggesting echoes from the Gogol work(s).

 Despite Gogol's play having been officially sanctioned for performance by the Tsar Nicholas I, himself, Gogol left Russia shortly after its production in 1836 - a self-exile. I hear Mr Stone is leaving Australia too. Not for the same reasons has he become an exile, I feel sure, for nothing could be more harmless than his and Ms Barclay's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR. (Mr Brandis can continue to instruct the Australia Council to keep funding the Belvoir - this government will not be offended by this GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR!).

THYESTES directed by Mr Stone in Sydney, in January 2012, was, for me, to witness a dazzling work from a very exciting theatrical artist. Then, it seemed to me, he had control of his material, the source - the Roman poet, Seneca - of his actors, and his production: it revealed virtuosity. THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR has actors of skill, and there are some strokes of panache in the production choices, but the fundamental 'dwarfing' of his source, the Russian writer, Gogol, does not enable him to strike the iron again with such a red hot blow. At the Belvoir now, there is no such arrest.


  1. "Nikolai Gogol, Plays and Petersburg Tales" New translations by Christopher English. Introduction by Richard Peace, Oxford World Classics, 1995.

1 comment:

John said...

I saw this production in a preview performance, and thus had heard nothing about Mr Stone's ditching of the Gogol text. I was aware of the setback Belvoir had suffered after the announcement of the season of "The Philadelphia Story".
Robert Menzies alone on stage, introducing himself with his professional name, kicks things off in strange, disconcerting directions. One moment we laugh, then we sit up in shock. An actor 'DEAD'?!...who?...How dreadful!..But... why is that person across in row C tittering...Surely this is not a...after all , this is "Rob Menzies" here and he is speaking plain street-speech...
There is too much shoulder shrugging, too much apologizing. Menzies shuffles off and we get the idea...we're in for some sort of elaborate joke.
Then we get the foundations of the 'play' - the actors back stage, the shock and confusion and anger about a play being cancelled. The dialogue comes at us fast but it's about as witty as a commendable school play. then a master stroke: the mistaking of a mere 'nobody' for Mr Slobodan Stanistalin or something-; someone of whom we have heard mention... he's supposed to be an acknowledged master of the European theatre scene. The set-up to his arrival has involved talk of illness and postponements, and perhaps others in that Belvoir audience smiled recalling how the illness of an advertised Hungarian guest
director threatened to ruin the entire goulash at the STC a while back.
So the fake director (read inspector)is welcomed and the Belvoir Theatre's story is stretched across the scarcely visible bones of an old play, and the set looks like an Laundromat and Rob calls Greg Stone "Stonesy" and Mitchell Butel or was it Stonesy gets all excited about a gig on "Play School" and eventually there's a mini-musical which establishes that one actress is a great bluesy belter and which perhaps -perhaps - gives some justification for the use of those body mikes, which we see winding their way around torsos every time an actor changes his shirt.
I watched all this with a frequent sense of disbelief. I couldn't believe or maybe didn't want to believe that Mr Butel, after his wonderful performance in "Angels in A" would agree to do something that presented actors -for we watch "Mitchell" talking to "Erin" talking to "Greg" and so on - that presented actors as such selfish bubble-heads. I couldn't connect this whiny "Erin" with the marvellous actress from the recent STC "Romeo and Juliet".
I wondered at the decision made here, that something regarded as a 'classic' play had been judged less interesting than the idea of a bunch of actors having to solve a problem that we know in any case would have been solved by management and going about it in ways that hardly engender respect for actors as potential artists...
But hey...nearly everyone around me was rolling with laughter.
Never make me your inspector.