The malleability of theatre is what makes the art form so exciting. There are always ways to make the experience as fresh, engaging and accessible as possible. That’s what’s going on with a new co-production of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, presented by the Birmingham Rep and Ramps On The Moon. Using David Harrower’s adaptation, and made up of a cast of actors from various disabled backgrounds, I looked forward to stepping into the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre to see the efforts of these two exciting organisations.
In case you’re not familiar with it, The Government Inspector brings us into the greedy world of Mayor Anton (David Carlyle), who nabs money and dignity from the residents of his town at the edge of Russia. Much to his horror, he receives information that a government inspector is on their way to check out the town and his governing style. When the mysterious, charismatic and scheming Khlestakov (Robin Morrissey) arrives in town, the Mayor believes his time has come – and pulls out all the stops to impress the ‘inspector’ during his stay…
The beauty of classic play is the fact that the story doesn’t change, yet the language and way the play is conceptualised often does the opposite, so no production of a classic play like The Government Inspector will ever be the same. This is certainly the case with this new production, which places a great emphasis on accessibility for everyone in the audience, including those with impaired hearing. The company has made a deliberate choice to have a giant caption screen in the centre of the stage at the back, while BSL interpreters are actually characters in the play. This allows those with hearing impairments to become absorbed in the action of the play, rather than get a stiff neck from having to look to the right or left of a stage at an interpreter.
In their piece, Birmingham Rep and Ramps On The Moon also employ a large number of actors that have hearing impairments and other disabilities, proving how theatre is a highly accessible wellspring of opportunities for people of all backgrounds. Performances across the board are excellent, with every portrayal dripping with plenty of energy and infectious enthusiasm, particularly from Carlyle and Morrissey. The company works very well as an ensemble too, creating a powerful group dynamic that ultimately becomes shattered, to great comedic effect, by the intrusion of Khlestakov.
Ti Green’s innovative set design also deserves a mention, with its distinct 1920/30s vibe injecting a sense of timelessness into the production. It isn’t exactly clear where the production is set, but that isn’t the primary focus of the piece – emphasis is placed on the talent and performances of the company. The set, and indeed Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design, helps to emphasise these performances further. Character asides are clearly marked and differentiated from the piece by distinct changes in lighting and sound, helping to achieve a rich, multi-layered approach to storytelling.
There are times, however, when performers don’t quite seem to play the truth of the situation, and instead focus too much on a sense of play for the sake of being different. Some sequences appear heavily choreographed, and it shows. A more attentive approach to the detail and atmosphere within Harrower’s adaptation might have allowed the performers to avoid this.
But this production of The Government Inspector can be forgiven for this minor niggle, purely because it’s so innovative. It’s an exciting example of how theatre can be made even more accessible to audiences and performers alike, and is definitely well worth a watch.
The Government Inspector is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 30 April. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.