The Government Inspector, Canberra Theatre Centre*

29 May

* I attended this production as a guest of Canberra Theatre Centre.

The Government Inspector is a famous Russian play. This production, by Belvoir Street Theatre, is The Government Inspector. This production is also not The Government Inspector. Confused? Read on.

It is a confusing start. While the theatre lights stay lit, we’re told that the play we’re here to see – The Philadelphia Story (a genuine play) – isn’t going ahead, so it’s The Government Inspector instead. But, well, we’re not quite going to be seeing The Government Inspector that we probably had in mind, either. To explain, we’re taken back two weeks from ‘present time’.

*cue dreamy back in the past music*

With the withdrawal of rights from the intended play The Philadelphia Story (not far from the truth in real life), our cast – breaking the fourth wall by using the actors’ real names – wonder what on earth they’re going to do. There’s this great play called The Government Inspector (and yes, it’s also a genuine play): in a corrupt village in 19th Century Russia they’re expecting a government inspector, and mistake a downtrodden fellow for the inspector. The downtrodden fellow assumes the role a bit too well, and all the town is fooled – so much so that he conducts affairs with the mayor’s wife and his daughter and leaves the town with all their money. It sounds like a great play!

The cast also learn of this great Uzbek director, Seifat… so why not give it their best shot and send him a garbled text to ask his help to put on this Australian production – they’ve got nothing to lose, after all! The cast get a short but affirmative text back, and celebrate – there will be a play after all!

Meanwhile… there’s a down-and-out fellow who’s in the theatre to audition for an improvisation play (cute). He’s no idea what he’s doing, but thankfully the cleaner, Dolores, gives him some important tips – she’s paid attention while she’s been working in this theatre, so is something of an expert. The cast stumble on him and – thanks to his downtrodden state – assume he’s Seifat. He believes this to be his improvisation audition, and immediately assumes a Uzbek accent. They put him up in a lovely hotel and he’s having a whale of a time, but 24 hours later wonders what the hell is going on – is this the longest audition ever? Fortunately Dolores comes to the rescue and informs him that he and the cast are both mistaken… but so long as they think he’s director, why doesn’t he just direct and enjoy the spoils that come with it?

The cast are looking for a hero, and so – believing this ‘Seifat’ to be a genius – willingly put up with all sorts of crazy direction, including – wait for it – simulated sex, facing the wall for hours, and climbing in and out of washing machines – there’s a lot of climbing in and out of washing machines. Eventually, ‘Seifat’ struggles to keep up the pretense any longer, and the cast realise his direction is so far divorced from The Government Inspector storyline that they’ve all been conned – and just 48 hours before opening night!

Thankfully, the seemingly omnipresent and omniscient Dolores has a solution: a performance of The Government Inspector, but not as you know it…

… and this takes us right back where the play began.

I expect the lights to come on right then, but there’s another 20 minutes in store: a real musical treat of singing, choreography and some not-misplaced break-dancing.

Are you still with me? If you’ve gotten past the first paragraph, you should be fine, just like we were after the first 15 minutes which – between breaking the fourth wall and having a play within a play – are so self-referent that the play is at genuine risk of losing its audience. But this is a bold play and it’s a risk worth taking: I’m happy to report that the confusing introduction does eventually make sense and even wraps up beautifully by the time the lights do come on.  If that’s not enough, there are plenty of modern day and Canberra-specific references – from activated almonds, to them performing within the Canberra Theatre Centre, to heading out to Mooseheads to celebrate.

It’s a complementary ensemble – it simply has to be to pull off something like this. I particularly enjoy Gareth Davies’ stage presence, but it’s Zahra Newman who is tireless in two demanding roles, and who has a simply exquisite voice.

This is fun theatre which demands the audience keep up – but provides plenty of signposts to ensure you don’t get lost. At 80 minutes and with no interval, we even head out at a reasonable time.

Date: Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Where: Canberra Theatre Centre

Cost: Tickets range from $50-83; Boyfriend and I were lucky enough to attend as guests of the Canberra Theatre Centre

Value for money: High

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile

Want more? The Government Inspector is on at the Canberra Theatre until Saturday, 31 May. Tickets are available for purchase here.

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