Three years in and yes, we are aware of The Current Economic Climate. It is in the newspapers, it is on prime time television, it is on the banners of the protesters that march through Dublin; sometimes it even seems to be in the weather. It is a change of fortunes that has reverberated throughout our country, with no insignificant amount of metamorphosis in our lives and styles. It is has defined a generation. It is no small thing.
This has been reflected in our media, theatre being no exception. The stage has always been a place where the moods and preoccupations of society have been played out. It is not, by its nature, the fastest method by which current affairs can be raised, so as a consequence the matters that make their way to the stage tend less towards the fleeting and ephemeral. It is only natural, then, that unemployment, emigration and recession desperation has been acted out on Irish stages; it is, unfortunately, our zeitgeist.
But why does this have to be portrayed in a manner about as subtle as Jordan’s make-up? The Government Inspector is a prime example. Here we have a play gracing the boards of our National Theatre, directed by the accomplished Jimmy Fay, and in a new version penned by Booker prize-winning author Roddy Doyle. A recipe for a successful Christmas play? Well, in many, many ways it is. Except for the fact that Doyle’s version lacks the arch astuteness of Nikolai Gogol’s original; the Mayor talks about “principle residences”, the ‘Inspector’ yells “Let them eat cheese!” and brown envelopes are bandied about with the utmost of indiscretion. That said, Nabokov appears to be correct when he declared that “No-one but an Irishman should tackle Gogol”, for Doyle’s language and comic talent enlivens and enervates from the Mayor’s opening line: “Gentlemen – lads – “
Jimmy Fay’s lively direction borrows from melodrama in just the right amount, and his knack for creating stage pictures means that every pivotal moment begs to be photographed. The ensemble of government officials are as good individually as they are as a whole, with a particularly hilarious turn from Damian Kearney as the Postmaster. Ciaran O’Brien as the ‘Inspector’, with his quiff, tartan trousers and SoCoDu accent seems to have taken his character study from a patron of WAR, but his energy means that it hits rather more than it misses. The undisputed star of the play is, however, Don Wycherley as the Mayor, who delivers an unrelenting – and, at times, an impressively acrobatic – performance, fluctuating from a bumbling crook to a volatile violence. Conor Murphy’s set is an excellent one, transforming and turning and ensuring that every scene has a distinct place, and Denis Clohessy’s dramatic score underlines the moments of melodrama with a flourish.
As productions go, it is slick, impressive and performed with laugh-out-loud aplomb; it is well worth seeing. However, as versions go – notwithstanding Doyle’s fresh and humorous take on Gogol’s language – one feels that for all its blatant relevance, it somewhat misses the point. Gogol’s plot is, intrinsically, about the corruption of authority and the misuse of power; his play, on the other hand, deals with the rather more encompassing theme of human nature. The Government Inspector is set in Russia and is about Russians, but as arguably the greatest play to come from that vast country, and as with all masterpieces, there is in it truths that transcend borders.
The brown envelopes and sound bites borrowed from some of our unfortunate ministers of state may elucidate that this is an Irish version, but what it also does, at times, is blind us to the fact that it is human fault and foible that Gogol first wrote of. We can now spot a TD fond of ‘presents’ a mile off (or so we hope…); we are more than familiar with the fraudulence of governments, so would it not be more interesting, more discerning to allow the audience to join the dots all on our own? We can’t afford our gym membership any more, so a little bit of mental exercise would do us all good. Especially before Christmas.