The Abbey should throw away its safety net and engage with an imploding society


CULTURE SHOCK:THERE ARE TWO kinds of bad theatre production. There’s the accidental disaster that happens when a script is not ready, a director loses control or the actors are miscast.

These failures are inevitable and, in the overall scheme of things, unimportant. And then there’s the accident that’s been waiting to happen, the bad production that brings to a head concerns that have long been unresolved. The Abbey’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspectorbelongs in this category. It is very poor – well below the standard that would be expected of any national theatre. The poverty, though, lies not merely in the execution but deep in the conception.

The Government Inspectoris a benchmark in international drama. Gogol’s tale of corrupt small-town government thrown into a panic by the arrival of a stranger mistaken for a senior government official has universal resonance and gets adapted to many times and places. The last production I remember seeing in Dublin was by the Anglo-Indian company Tara Arts and brilliantly transposed the action to colonial India. More recently, Marie Jones did a version for DubbleJoint (which I didn’t see) that set the action in a small Ulster town.

It’s not just the play’s adaptability as political satire that makes it important, though. It is also one of the harbingers of the contemporary interest in self-conscious performance. The central characters invent versions of themselves. The young pup mistaken for the inspector, Khlestakov, has to perform as a powerful official. The corrupt mayor, in turn, performs before him as a virtuous and diligent official. Everybody’s play-acting. This gives the piece a surreal edge that was exploited by the great Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold in a 1926 version that is considered one of the foundations of 20th-century avant-garde theatre.

Both in its political content and in its theatrical form, therefore, The Government Inspectoris one of those marks of international distinction against which a theatre company can measure itself. And in this production the Abbey doesn’t measure up. It is very hard to imagine a production as poor as this on any of the world’s major stages.

Some of this poverty is of the accidental kind. There is no gentle way of saying that its cast, with the exception of Don Wycherley as the mayor and Rory Nolan as an official, is seriously underpowered. Khlestakov is one of the great young male roles, a comic equivalent of Hamlet. It was no great favour to Ciarán O’Brien to give him the role and encourage him to imagine Khlestakov as Jedward 10 years on. Conor Murphy’s set is technically impressive but never comes close to creating a coherent on-stage space in which the action makes sense. And Jimmy Fay, the production’s director, is obviously struggling with the tone, mood and rhythm of the play, unable to find a clear line through its dizzying switches from satire to surrealism, knockabout to savagery, fantasy to terror. The result is not a production that fails to connect with all the levels of Gogol’s masterpiece – the politics, the farce, the phantasmagoria. It is one that connects with none of them.

Even on the most basic level, what Fiach Mac Conghail, the head of the Abbey, calls a “hilarious play full of fun and laughter”, the production doesn’t deliver. It’s funny only if you find stuff such as the mayor putting on his hatbox instead of his hat, or the officials standing on each other’s toes, a hoot. And if you do, you might be as well served by the many pantos that are on at the moment.

But so what? Theatre is a messy business and bad stuff happens now and then. The worry, though, is that this bad stuff seems symptomatic of a deeper problem. The problem is easily stated: the national theatre’s struggle to respond to the national crisis. The Abbey is well aware that it is a public institution whose history is replete with powerful theatrical interventions in public conflicts. But The Government Inspector exposes its response to the end of the boom as timid and tentative.

The Abbey’s strategy has been based not on new work written in response to contemporary conditions but on staging old plays and hoping that, with a little nudge-nudge, the audience will see them as metaphors for Ireland now. So Macbeth gets a reference to Anglo Irish Bank in the Porter’s speech. So plays such as Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, with its banker anti-hero, or Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, with its property-based greed, consciously parallel our own recent history.

This is not, on an individual basis, an unreasonable approach, and it has been effective in, for example, Tom Murphy’s version of The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant. Cumulatively, though, it is no substitute for direct, passionate engagement with an imploding society. It seems suspiciously like a way of avoiding danger by giving yourself the safety net of an established classic.

With The Government Inspectorthis suspicion hardens into unavoidable conclusion. The feel of the project, and the underlying cause of its weakness, is that of grasping a safe way to raise the spectres of corruption, lies and bailouts. Where there should be savage indignation there is an implicit request to be patted on the back for having the courage to refer to brown envelopes. It’s like watching a Victorian spinster who thinks she’s being giddily outrageous by showing a bit of ankle.

There isn’t even the basic gesture towards immediacy of setting the action in Ireland. Roddy Doyle’s script is utterly – and often delightfully – steeped in Irish demotic speech, and its vividness and directness cry out to be given a recognisable context. But that might risk offending someone, so what we get instead is a setting that is literally nowhere and no time – bits of 1830s Russia and bits of 1930s small-town Ireland. And then, because the play has to be political, we get some direct quotes from our own politicians and churchmen. They should be edgy but, deliberately pushed out of any recognisable context, they are made to seem heavy-handed, expected to carry all the political punch that everything else about the production so patently lacks.

For a national theatre in a deeply troubled nation to make one of the great satires so limp is more than an accident. It is a crying-out for courage.