On the surface A Government Inspector looks very different from Gogol’s original. Instead of a whole series of Russian names bristling with patronymics, we have homely rather comic-sounding Yorkshire names – the ineptly interfering, if well-meaning, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky turn into Longbottom and Sidebottom! Even the title is slightly different from the usual The Government Inspector. I suspect that the reason, in an English setting, is that it is less of an official position, but it turns out that that is only one of several reasons, the main one being Deborah’s awareness that this is not a definitive version of the play, there will be many other takes on the subject. And, as for those names, they are in fact true to the original where Gogol gave his characters comic-satirical names for which this new version finds English equivalents.
Deborah explains that the name Hlestakov (the impoverished chancer taken to be a government inspector) invokes, according to the poet Pushkin, “the snap of a card or the lash of a whip” – hence he becomes Snapper. My favourite piece of re-naming is the Mayor or Council Leader. His unpronounceable Russian name implies a bilious or puffed up character – what better than Belcher, a good stout Northern name? One character’s name literally means ‘wild strawberry’, so of course it’s now Councillor Strawberry...and so it goes on.
As Deborah says, “You need a world” – not the sort of half and half Russian-English setting you so often see with The Government Inspector – and in this case the consistency of that world is helped no end by having a husband and wife team in charge, with Conrad Nelson as director and also composer/musical director. The remote little world invaded by the inspector is clearly set in the Pennines, a world, Deborah points out, that is as remote from London ideologically (though not physically) as the setting of the original is from St. Petersburg. And this world is full of brass band music, with nine of the twelve actors playing wind instruments. Interestingly, the cast, whilst containing several Northern Broadsides regulars, features even more from Broken Time, the Nelson-directed play about the formation of the Rugby League which integrated brass band music superbly. In the case of A Government Inspector, the brass band also serves to give a sense of community in a play that has very few admirable characters.
The production, Conrad believes, should work with the written word in providing a Northern voice which puts the text over with speed and lightness. They and I have seen Gogol’s play too often in pedantic, over-literal versions that retain, without explanation, Russian ranks and decorations. Both of them are clear that this version should be faithful, but not reverential. The cast, for instance, is nearly halved, but what modern company can afford to cast 28 parts? Cut to 16, played by 12 actors, the cast still retains all the central characters, with one, the afore-mentioned Cllr. Strawberry, changed to female, as much as anything in the interests of finding distinct identities for the town officials: Deborah says of one production, “what came across was a stage full of men with incomprehensible Russian names and it was hard to work out who was who.”
Corruption is always with us and A Government Inspector is not a satire on current politics, though the attacks on religious hypocrisy may chime with a few recent national and international leaders, and both Conrad and Deborah emphasise the allegory of human nature, even the fantastic element, and insist that Gogol had no specific target of satire. I look forward to seeing for the first time a version of Gogol’s play that sets the clockwork precision of his plotting against the background of a recognisable community.
Yorkshire is very much to the fore throughout the All Points North season. Richmond-based North Country Theatre follows Broadsides into the Main Theatre with The Lighthouse on Shivering Sands (September 26-29). Adapted and directed by Nobby Dimon from a JS Fletcher short story, this is a tongue-in-cheek version of a spooky seafaring yarn. Harrogate Theatre’s third co-production is with Sheffield-based Reform Theatre Company. Seconds Out, written by Nick Lane and directed by Keith Hukin, occupies the Studio Theatre from 18 – 29 September, a powerful contemporary play about dangerous relationships.
Between All Points North and the start of the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk on November 23rd, Harrogate’s programme is full of high-quality one-nighters. The Harrogate Comedy Festival (7 – 20 October) features 50 comedians in 14 days in 3 main venues, plus a Comedy Quiz at Jakes. Harrogate Theatres now book the Royal Hall and that joins the Studio and Main House in a programme that ranges from established names such as Jack Dee, Sandi Toksvig and Julian Clary to a Comedian of the Year competition for newcomers.
Also particularly exciting, among an excellent Autumn programme of music and comedians, is the return of English Touring Opera (1-3 November) with three contrasted 20th century works: The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies, Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring and The Emperor of Atlantis, the remarkable satirical comedy by Viktor Ullman composed and staged in 1944 in the “model ghetto” of Terezin, in fact, simply a half-way stage to the death camps.
Other Yorkshire dates for A Government Inspector are:
16-20 October Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
24-27 October Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
21-24 November Viaduct Theatre, Halifax
27 Nov – 1 Dec Theatre Royal, York
For full tour dates www.northern-broadsides.co.uk