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The Government Inspector at the Abbey Theatre (Review)

Jimmy Fay’s version of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui was one of the highlights of the past few years at the Abbey, so seeing the director handle Nokolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is an interesting premise. While Fay handles the play wonderfully well, with a (mostly) solid cast and superb staging choices, I can’t help but feel that Roddy Doyle’s translation of the play is just a bit “on the nose”, striving for a bit of forced relevance with countless references to “brown paper envelopes.” Perhaps the best indication of the show comes from the wonderful inset in the programme, illustrated in a pleasant enough style by Irish Times cartoonist M. Turner – a mock-up cut-out selection that includes mock-up heads of Bertie Ahern and Charlie Haughey. One senses that the production might have had a bit more bite a few years back.

Family values...

None of this is to dismiss the quality of the production itself. The set design alone is a thing of beauty, with rotating set pieces and layers of scenery, with clever uses of lighting creating wonderfully elegant shadows. The play looks lovely, and it’s a credit to the entire production team. Fay has a rare knack for handling these sorts of shows, making them seem impressively elegant while remaining accessible. There’s a wonderful skill to all of it, but it never distracts from the core of the play – his backdrops and sets and lighting all complement his cast, rather than overwhelming them. When – during the climax of the play – the Mayor swings through the monkey bars like an upset ape, it seems quite natural, rather than an attempt to make use of some elaborate props and scenery.

Fay has put together a mostly sold cast to bring Doyle’s version of Gogol’s play to life. Don Wycherley is, as he tends to be, an absolute joy to watch as the small-town mayor trying to manage a potential government investigation into his local fiefdom. He’s ably supported by a strong cast, with Damian Kearney in particular standing out as the town’s Postmaster General. The one sour note in the play is struck by Ciarán O’Brien, who is tasked with playing the local fool mistaken for the eponymous government official. O’Brien attacks his role with enthusiasm, but his hyper-active delivery doesn’t quite gel with the more wonderful ensemble work.

The Government Inspectoris a story about country bumpkins taken in by an outsider, but it’s also an exploration of endemic corruption of small-town governance. As such, it’s a story that has considerable relevance and bite, and will until we can actually managed to get the idea of local and national governance straightened out. Given the scandals that have rocked Irish politics over the past three or so decades, it certainly feels incredibly timely and has a particular resonance to the Irish situation. So, I can understand why the play was chosen, and why Doyle took the approach that he did.

Small government...

However, it seems like Doyle seems to go for the easy targets. He attacks the Health Service, represented by a well-suited gentleman and his conspicuously foreign doctor colleague, and he uses “brown envelope” as a euphemism for government corruption, large and small. There are the judges and the developers present, as well – all part of the system of graft and corruption. However, the target very clearly appears to be Fianna Fail, with the Mayor given lines about having difficulty recalling particular events, or the classification of “donations” as “loans”, and even lines about “sharing the pain” and “it’s a digout, not a bailout.”

It just seems a little bit too obvious, a little bit too conspicuous. There’s no real depth the insinuations or allegations, no real insight in Doyle’s translation, except swapping a few political watch-words and current affairs references into the text. It actually seems like the play loses a bit of its depth by being tethered to such blatant examples, as if Doyle’s missing the forest for the trees. Bertie and Charlie might have been the most publicised examples of graft and corruption in Irish life, but they weren’t the only ones. It wasn’t a problem confined to the height of government, but on that took place at a local level. The village in the play doesn’t have to be a crude sketch of the entire nation, but could be a microcosm of the personal fiefdoms scattered across the country.

Anchoring the play in figures faded from history (with Charlie dead and Bertie long gone) seems to miss the point a bit, and soften the edge. It makes the play feel a bit safer, as if we’re laughing at something in the past. We’re not, of course. The Health Services Executive is still a mess. Local politics still run on personal favours. I get the sense that there were an infinite number of ways to make the story apply to a more modern Ireland, but these would have been more provocative and controversial and challenging than simply mauling the Fianna Fail corpse.

Needs some introspection...

After all, what if the Government Inspector were to stand in for the EU? Or the IMF? That would cast the village as a more immediate and modern Ireland, but would provoke questions about sovereignty in the audience. Would Doyle find the audience sympathising with the corrupt small-town yokels over the outsiders? Or would foreign interference seem justified by the fact that  the community is clearly run by eejits? That would be interesting, philosophically. But this feels safe.

Other than that, though, Doyle’s script is fun. It’s witty and clever, full of nice laughs and pleasant chuckles. It’s entertaining, which is enough, I suppose. There’s something wonderfully surreal to see the play full of Irish colloquialisms (“yer man” or “like” or “in fairness” or “Jaysus!”) in a clearly Russian setting. Doyle keeps the character and place names, and the social context, but he gives the play a fascinatingly cheeky Irish accent. It is, as mentioned above, delightfully fun.

I just wish it could have been a little bit more.

2 Responses

  1. Off topic, but have you caught the newest “Sherlock,” A Scandal In Belgravia? I’d really like to hear your thoughts. I feel like Moffat is really poking fun at the Ritchie films, all the while incorporating certain elements from them. This series should be a blast.

    • I did actually. My first Sherlock episode, so I don’t have a frame of reference. I will now, however, be buying the DVDs en masse. How the hell does Moffat write in such large volumes across so many projects so well. He’s had three huge projects this year and the only one I wasn’t entirely happy with was the script for Tintin (but it’s hard to tell how much of that was down to Moffat or the many chefs).

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