Belvoir St Theatre, March 30
As many would know, Belvoir’s 2014 season was to have included a radically reworked production of The Philadelphia Story “created by Simon Stone, based on the play by Philip Barry”.
However, after the subscription brochure was released, it transpired that Barry’s wife was a silent co-writer. The play was therefore not out of copyright and her estate refused to grant the rights.
To fill the gap Stone decided to use the same cast in a production of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 political satire The Government Inspector. Well, sort of.
Gogol’s farce is set in rural Russia where corrupt bureaucrats mistake a lowly civil servant for a government inspector. They bribe him rotten until, having taken full advantage of them, he does a bunk just before the real inspector arrives.
Stone and his co-writer Emily Barclay have created a piece, devised with the actors, that riffs on Gogol’s themes while being set in a theatre.
The show begins with a morose Robert Menzies, in priest’s garb, stalking on stage to explain that not only will we not be seeing The Philadelphia Story but we won’t be seeing The Government Inspector either, so if anyone wants to leave, now’s the time.
On Ralph Myers’s revolving set – which has a performance space with a gold curtain on one side, and a backstage area on the other – Stone then whisks us back to three weeks before opening.
The actors – Menzies, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone – are discovered digesting the news that The Philadelphia Story has been cancelled. Next they learn that Stone has quit as director. Then Davies dies, choking on an activated almond.
Someone suggests staging The Government Inspector and a Google search locates Seyfat Babayev, an Uzbekistani director who recently mounted an avant-garde production. An invitation is sent and he agrees to come. To say more would spoil things.
Using their own names, the actors play heightened, wickedly comical versions of themselves. Butel is a flouncing, self-obsessed luvvie ready to decamp to Playschool if necessary, Norvill an air-headed soap star, Menzies, a grouch who will only enunciate clearly when paid, Stone, needy and ambitious, and Bazzi, a quiet, somewhat vague observer. Davies also plays a hapless actor called Frank who arrives to audition for an improvisation project, while Newman is a Hispanic cleaner with a love of musicals (and what a lovely singing voice she has).
They all work together as a tight ensemble. To play the panic and escalating chaos in the play requires absolute precision otherwise it descends into a total mess. They do it brilliantly with perfectly pitched performances, making sure we hear what we need to amid the hubbub.
The production becomes a rollicking, clever take on Gogol, skewering human vanity, pretension, ego and ambition, while poking delicious fun at Australian auteur directors (like Stone himself) influenced by European theatre, as well as musicals and theatre in general.
People in the business and committed theatre-goers will probably get most out of it but it’s so hilariously funny you’d have to be as curmudgeonly as Menzies is here not to enjoy it.
The Government Inspector is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 18. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444
A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6