On a damp but smiling Saturday evening, we dart down alleyways, avoiding drizzle, ducking and winding towards the Yarra. Golden glue sticks to the edges of dark clouds as the city dims. Across the river, it’s a short distance to an underpass which takes us to the theatre door. Moments before the crowd hushes, we slip in and take our seats.
The stage appears before us: a semicircle backed by a partition, with a door in its middle. From that door emerges actor Robert Menzies (grandson of his prime-ministerial namesake) in clerical robes, to introduce the show.
Immediately, it’s unclear what is a genuine announcement from actor to audience, and what is theatrical contrivance. Is Menzies in character, or addressing us earnestly? In truth, there’s no distinction this evening, and any attempt to discern one will only tie your brain in knots. There’s no pivotal moment where life becomes art or vice versa. This production of Nikolai Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector” exists wholly and gleefully in that overlap, or that vague and playful “in-between”. And when Menzies announces that we’ll be seeing neither the originally planned Philadelphia Story (to which the rights were denied last minute) nor, in fact, “The Government Inspector,” (as advertised) he’s both entirely right and wrong. The crowd lets out a fit of giggles – hearty but nervous giggles, because we may not be entirely in on the joke just yet.
Gogol’s original 1836 play is a satire, a comedy of errors, a biting allegory of political corruption and self-serving social agendas in Imperial Russia. In Gogol’s text, a lowly clerk named Khlestakov appears in a small Russian town and is mistaken for a Government Inspector, whose arrival the mayor’s corrupt officials have been nervously awaiting. Khlestakov, eventually cottoning on to his mistaken identity, happily exploits it – becoming a guest of honour at the mayor’s house, accepting bribes, flirting with the mayor’s wife and daughter. Despite its fixation on deception and illusion, however, the original narrative resides within a single reality; there are no extra layers of plot surrounding Australian actors, snack-related deaths or absent Eastern European directors. In this way, tonight’s performance differs greatly.
Simon Stone’s production (co-written with Emily Barclay and the cast) is what you might call a “backstage” comedy: a self-reflexive, postmodern farce. With “The Philadelphia Story” out of the picture, the real-world ensemble were in a dilemma: no production in progress, and three weeks to prepare a new show. So Stone chose Gogol’s classic impostor play, but refashioned it into an impostor in itself.
Within the reimagined, alternative reality of tonight’s play, the theatre company’s sticky situation is intensified. Gareth Davies chokes to death on an activated almond, and Simon Stone resigns, so Menzies (in a hilarious Siri-begotten scramble) contacts a famous Uzbekistani director to take over. Soon, we meet Frank Trubridge (a more wholly fictitious entity, played by the real Gareth Davies – still following?) Frank’s a wannabe-actor arriving for an improv audition, but in the heat of the moment he’s presumed to be the avant-garde master director from across the globe – here in town, sooner than expected.
It might sound like a bit of a mess, and, well, it is – but luckily it’s a cunningly, artfully crafted mess that unfurls in a cheeky, measured, farcical manner. This production is as much about the absurd trials and tribulations of working in theatre as anything else, and there’s plenty of self-deprecating humour in the actors’ hammed-up depictions of themselves. Eryn-Jean Norvill, known in some circles for her work on Home and Away, paints herself as a naïve dilettante. Menzies and (perpetually pantless older actor) Greg Stone are both cynical, grumpy but quietly idealistic and aspirational, with dreams of playing Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. Zahra Newman plays both herself and the (secretly gifted) latino venue cleaner Dolores, parodying racial assumptions; Mitchell Butel emerges as the terminally camp careerist (moonlighting on Play School) and Fayssal Bazzi becomes the quiet and slightly oblivious achiever, the object of his peers’ envy.
Cast-related in-jokes and escalating confusion can only go so far, of course, in terms of entertaining a wider audience – and luckily, the whole thing does an about-face just as it reaches tipping point. Now, not only a “backstage” narrative, we witness the “plays” within the “play.” First, there’s the ludicrous faux-avant-garde shambles that Frank attempts to contrive during exhausting rehearsals (endless getting in and out of washing machines, Zahra relegated to playing a pair of static legs in a phone booth). Then, later, a final reimagining of Gogol’s work – a riotous musical (written by Stefan Gregory) which applies the dorkiest, silliest tendencies of the genre to a grim soviet setting. This segment, in which the stage continually revolves to reveal both “onstage” and “backstage” action alternately, is magic – over-the-top rhyme schemes, outlandish costumes, disco ball ballads, garish cadenzas. It’s side-splittingly tasteless and the logical culmination of all silliness hitherto; it also gives the cast a chance to show off their impressive vocal pipes. The decadently layered and implausible production goes out with a bang: confetti and all. What would Gogol say? No doubt he’s turning in his grave – but on account of chuckles, not chagrin.
As we file out, there’s the delightful feeling of trying to piece reality back together, knowing that ultimately everything is as confusing, chimerical and hilarious in daily life as it is in any particular work of artifice. But where earlier postmodern upheavals, like those of Pirandello and Calvino, were genuine subversions of form and radical reassessments of reality as we know it, these tactics now are less shocking and more simply – fun. Stone’s take on “The Government Inspector” is, in a single word, fun. But there’s a lot to be said for fun.