Isn’t it nice when life imitates art? Malthouse Theatre were certainly in a pickle when they found themselves unable to stage Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story, originally slated for their Summer slot. Who could have imagined that Philip Barry would have a previously uncredited co-writer wife that would prevent Malthouse from attaining the rights to the show? With issues of copyright and ownership already hanging in the air, Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector seemed a logical replacement for Malthouse however with The Philadelphia Story already cast and production deadlines looming, the old theatre adage ‘the show must go on’ was being significantly challenged from all fronts.
Once again, it’s irector Simon Stone to the rescue. Making a habit out of reinventing and reinvigorating classic theatre (see, The Wild Duck and last year’s excellent Cherry Orchard), Malthouse couldn’t have been in safer hands upon finding themselves in the thick of it. Leading a production that’s as fresh and well-staged, as it is self-referential and fiercely funny, Stone, alongside co-writer Emily Barclay and set-designer Paul Jackson, have proven themselves to be a theatrical force to be reckoned with.
We begin with actor Robert Menzies speaking to us directly and giving us a rundown of all the chaos that has marred the production of The Government Inspector up to this point, with two cast members dropping out and one dropping dead! Don’t worry, though. Stone has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as he takes us behind the curtain, giving us a satirical look into the challenges of putting on a show as well as modernizing the story of original Russian farce about fakin’ it. Nikolai Gogol’s Government Inspector is set in a small town that’s riddled with dealings and misdeeds…not too far from the chaotic world of showbiz it would seem. Rather than corruption, our acting troupe grapple with their own bitterness, egocentrism, failed dreams and delusions of grandeur. How far does this stretch reality? You’ll have to ask the cast.
The cast lap up these heightened, self-obsessed extensions of themselves with Robert Menzies providing the bitter and Mitchell Butel providing the ego, both in whopping doses. Special mentions go to the dummy-spitting Zahra Newman who takes a fantastic comic turn as the cleaner, and Gareth Davies, whose sweet pathos and dodgy Yugoslav accent cuts through the chaos. Will the ramshackle cast get the show ready in time? I’d stick around if I were you, as the jaw-droppingly hilarious final 20 minutes are worth the price of admission alone.
With the odds stacked against him, Simon Stone and his consummate cast have successfully brought Gogol into the Google Age in a show that, first and foremost, sets out to entertain. Is it possible for a replica to hold as much merit as the original? You bet. ‘Is there still an audience for Russian farce?’ as asked by one of the cast members? You bet.