Warped music twangs eerily as a pulsing neon light, reading ‘Incognito’, pursues Julian Barratt’s string-vested and strung out Mayor. The walls of the Mayor’s house, designed by Miriam Buether, jut out awkwardly and are papered in kaleidoscopic patterns. It feels like we’ve just jumped down Alice’s rabbit hole and, as such, is the perfect backdrop for Nikolai Gogol’s surreal satire, Government Inspector.
Most directors take Gogol’s deliciously strange novel too seriously and too literally. The nameless provincial town in which Gogol’s madness unfurls is often translated into an all too recognisable, remote rural setting. It becomes a perilously stable context and a stodgy play. What Richard Jones has done, in setting his adaptation in a technicolour wonderland, is to transfer the zaniness of Gogol’s narrative into his aesthetics. The persistent oddness of Gogol’s language is felt everywhere; it is in the repetitious patters, the wild colours, odd angles and mad surprises that emerge from the walls, floors and ceilings on stage.
The characters are as twisted as the backdrop, with a basis in reality that has been skewed out of all proportion. All the roles have a surreal sheen, which suits this TV-heavy cast well. Julian Barratt, as the corrupt Mayor thrown into chaos by the imminent arrival of the Government Inspector, is not a richly textured actor. He doesn’t feel particularly solid on stage. But what Barratt does do brilliantly is to calmly absorb the increasingly bonkers action on stage – a skill he probably picked up working on the equally mental Mighty Boosh. Nothing can surprise Barratt and he responds to the hallucinatory rats, roaming lights and crumbling walls with an admirable and apt sense of calm. Barratt’s dead pan acceptance of a disintegrating reality does not mute the madness but instead amplifies its impact.
Khlestakov (Kyle Soller), the clerk who the Mayor and his posse mistakenly identify as the government inspector, looks like Jonny Depp’s Mad Hatter, with his bright orange hair and dandy suits. Doon Mackichan, playing the Mayor’s wife, is like a whacky doll, dressed by a permanently tripping teenager. Yet, despite some knock-out cameos, this is a genuine group effort. The play’s full absurdity is only realised through the citizens’ collective, fantastically fawning sycophancy. The women circle Khlestakov as if he were the second coming and he soon can’t move for drink, food or bribes being pushed his way.
This laughably misdirected courtesy comes to a head in a glorious central scene, in which Khlestakov is presented with a conveyor belt of cash. One by one, the candy coloured and sweet talking members of the community offload their kopeks on Khlestakov. This cycle of sycophants is absurd in itself but Jones pushes things further, with money thrust through the floors and dropping down from the walls. Similarly, when the Mayor later boasts of his victory, helium balloons bearing his face fill up the stage. Time and again, the town’s mutating self-interest is emblazoned across the stage.
The only area Jones does not exaggerate is the cruelty that rumbles beneath Gogol’s satire. This could be slightly down to David Harrower’s new version of the text, which, although witty and wonderfully paced, lacks a certain viciousness. It could be meaner. When the Mayor’s plan comes crumbling to the ground, the repressed majority finally make themselves heard. Disgruntled shopkeepers burst through the walls and one particularly unhappy citizen takes a shit on the Mayor’s sofa.
Jones does not hold back on the citizens’ discontent but what he does fail to realise is the authority’s cruel control. Near the close, Barratt’s Mayor rounds up the dissidents for questioning. At the end of a pointless interrogation, the Mayor’s henchman drop the rebel down a hole. For once, the parallel with Alice in Wonderland lets Jones down. One wishes, for a moment, we could replace Barratt’s grinning Cheshire cat with a creature with slightly more bite.