To many, the thought of Russian literature conjures up bad memories of trying to read War and Peace, because ‘it’s just one of those things you just have to read’, before giving up and skimming through a summary online instead. And yet, it’s the lighter, less philosophical side of Russian literature that is often less well known to Western readers, particularly those who haven’t studied the language before. For this reason, I was particularly pleasantly surprised that the Univ garden play was to be Gogol’s biting satire ‘The Government Inspector’. After deciding he wanted to write a comedy, Gogol wrote to his friend Pushkin to ask for a comic anecdote that he could use as inspiration, and Pushkin sent him back an amusing tale of how he was once mistaken for someone else and therefore treated differently – thus, the premise of ‘the Government Inspector’ was born. In his version, Gogol imagines a provincial Russian town run by a corrupt Mayor and his equally shady personnel, which suddenly hears news of a Government Inspector arriving to check up on them, mistakes a civil servant from St Petersburg for the Inspector himself, and thus begins a race to cover up their antics whilst fawning upon the supposed ‘Inspector’, providing for farcical hilarity bordering on the surreal.
The director, Daisy Hayes, herself a Russian student, is keen to emphasise that although the comedic elements speak for themselves over the course of the play, there are other aspects to the play: as a biting satire, it nonetheless has the first hints of a slightly menacing and prickly atmosphere of unease that begin to encroach on the comedy towards the end – during the end scene that I was able to watch in one of their rehearsals, this atmosphere was artfully created both by the directing and by the actors themselves, who allowed it to seep into the scene without overshadowing the other obviously comedic elements. The absurdity of the plot itself will also be highlighted: although I was unable to see it for myself, the set is promised to be a minimalist yet cleverly deceptive design, using materials that partially absorb the light in order to create shadows and silhouettes from the backdrop of Univ gardens that will be slightly distorted in line with the play’s notion of absurdity. The costumes too, have been designed to blur the boundary between real life and the surreal: it’s fair to say that this will be no ordinary comic reproduction of the text.
The cast themselves are a very tight-knit group of people, and the atmosphere of the rehearsal was laid-back, allowing those performing to explore different aspects of their characterisation whilst the scene was being played out. The ability of the cast and director to relax and have fun whilst rehearsing clearly has a positive effect on their interactions in the drama itself, as they play off each other very well to make the comedic moments stand out without seeming forced: particularly enjoyable during the scene I watched was the double act of Tom Lloyd and Freddie Waxman playing Dobchinsky and Bobchinksy respectively. Seamus Lavan, too, captures the slightly unnerving descent of the mayor from hateful self-congratulation to spiraling madness extremely effectively, and I have no doubt the cast as a whole will provide a captivating – and strongly comedic – performance throughout the play.
I, for one, will be taking the opportunity to see this under-performed Russian comedy, and I have no doubt that from the small part of the performance that I was able to witness, the acting, combined with the stunning backdrop of the Univ college gardens as the natural light begins to fade, will create an entertaining and multi-faceted performance, as unease seeps into farce and the surreal blurs with the real in this fantastic piece of drama.
Buy Tickets for the Univ garden play ‘Government Inspector’ here.