A little light satire isn’t everyone’s thing; neither is 19th Century Russian comedy. Still fewer would claim to be a fan of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Yet on exiting Sunday’s press preview for The Government Inspector I experienced a bizarre renewal of interest in all three. It seems this year’s garden shows had better step up their game, as the Univ Players’ delightful production has already set a high standard.
Gogol’s play is essentially a comedy of errors in which the impoverished aristocrat Khlestakov is mistaken for a dreaded government inspector. The inspector, whose imminent arrival strikes fear into the hearts of the Mayor and his apathetic townspeople, has been sent there to rid the town of corruption. But when Khlestakov realises the extent to which he can exploit this predicament to pay off his debts, and pocket a bit of cash, a characteristically Russian farce ensues.
Refreshingly funny, The Government Inspector is light and whimsical – more gently amusing than laugh-out-loud entertaining. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the frothiness Jack Peters has procured from Gogol’s script – the original production of the play was only put on at the personal intervention of Tsar Nicholas I, so mocking was the satirical strain. Of course, we don’t live in Tsarist Russia and the political implications of Gogol’s comedy will probably fly silently over most of our heads. But even I know corruption is bad and therefore I was, and I’m sure you’ll be, receptive enough to interpret the play’s moral.
James Skinner, playing the foppish Khlestakov with more than a dash of Boris Johnson, is effortlessly funny as the man who serendipitously finds refuge in this corrupt town. Felix Legge gives a winning performance as the crooked Mayor; he might be the quasi-villain of this piece but it’s quite hard not to root for his particular brand of misplaced cunning. Whilst the rest of the Univ Players do a lovely job of representing the caricatures of village life – this after all is a satire with little concern for verisimilitude – there are one or two weak links in what is an almost great ensemble. Also noteworthy is Nouran Koriem as the Mayor’s wife who gives a pitch-perfect performance as the spouse of a bourgeois official.
Of the garden show previews I’ve seen this term The Government Inspector is the one most suited to the genteel setting of the Oxford college garden. A little light satire isn’t everyone’s thing – but the way Univ Players do it, it certainly should be.