It’s hard to imagine what world Alistair Beaton’s new translation of Gogol’s comic classic is talking about. Of course, it’s about 19th-century Russia, but in a world where profits come before patients, where mail is routinely opened and where the director of education wails “God save us from a career in education”, there are some stark parallels with today’s world. It’s a parallel that’s not accidental - Beaton is a master satirist and the absurdities of Gogol’s world are an obvious attraction.
Beaton’s racy translation zips along but perhaps it’s too mired in the modern world. What’s really missing from director Martin Duncan’s vision for the play is the dreaded bureaucracy of Czarist Russia. This, after all, is a world peopled by secret police, where anyone could disappear. And what’s so chilling about Gogol’s play is the undeniable logic of the townsfolk’s actions. There really is a government inspector in the region, why shouldn’t he be this articulate and well-educated young man, who is, genuinely, a civil servant in St Petersburg? Duncan’s instinct is to go for laughs, but there’s an underlying seriousness about the play that is lost.
Duncan is also too heavy-handed with the comedy. The mayor and his corrupt cohorts are fearful for their livelihoods and even for their lives when they imagine what the inspector might do. And why is it that whenever directors want to depict a provincial town it seems to be mandatory to set it in the north of England – as if a northern accent is comic in itself?
Graham Turner’s mayor is too much of a comic stock figure, as is Selina Cadell’s social-climbing wife. There’s also an irritating over-use of sound effects. Does Duncan think the Chichester audience is so dozy that the word “whispering” has to be accompanied by an amplified whispering, or “laughing stock” needs the help of electronic laughter?
Alistair McGowan in the role of Khlestakov could have been seen as a piece of gimmicky casting - but who better than a master impressionist to play an impostor? McGowan is perhaps a bit awkward in his early scenes when he’s fearful of being nicked for debt, but he grows into the part as he becomes more aware of the power he has over the townspeople. The scene where he relieves the various burghers of their money is genuinely funny.
Ultimately, we rejoice when Khelestakov gets away with it. Perhaps it’s because he’s (initially at least) an unwilling scamster? Perhaps it’s because, in an age where a brief appearance on a reality TV show can be so financially rewarding, we’re more willing to applaud the acquisition of undeserved wealth.
But Gogol’s masterpiece hints at darker deeds beneath the surface, and this production, entertaining as it is, doesn’t really want to pry too deeply.