BBC Radio 3, 29 March 2009
This new production of Gogol's classic satire focused specifically on
the verbal flights of fancy constructed by the central character Khestakov (Toby Jones) to convince the gullible members of
a Russian local town council that he was actually an important member of central government. He proved so adept at this task
that, when his true identity was revealed, some of the councillors (and their wives in particular) actually felt sorry. Khestakov
had brought some light into their hitherto drab lives, but now it had been extinguished. Such opinions were particularly expressed
by Anna (Frances Barber) and the Magistrate's wife (Caroline Guthrie), both of whom had become tired of their menfolk's endless
pontifications and sought something more exciting instead.
Sally Avens's production was extremely funny, especially in its emphasis on animal
imagery. The characters were prone to describing one another as "pigs" in moments of extreme stress; and occasionally the
sound of farmyard animals could be heard in the background. Such sound-effects reminded us of the play's rural setting, as
well as suggesting that the councillors were morally no better than beasts. Although appointed to govern their fellow-citizens,
they thought nothing of abusing their responsibilities in pursuit of immediate gratification, whether social, sexual or whatever.
Gogol's dialogue was delivered at a great lick, which not only sustained the play's
farcical energy, but suggested that the councillors perpetually felt the need to talk. If they remained silent for any length
of time, they might be rendered painfully aware of the emotional bankruptcy of their lives. Khestakov readily understood this,
which helps to explain why his gift of the gab rendered him so successful in obtaining money in the form of loans from
Most of the rural characters spoke with soft northern accents, especially the harassed
Mayor (Paul Ritter) - a self-important booby possessing absolutely no administrative skill whatsoever. He never paused to
listen to anyone, remaining fully convinced of his own abilities.
The production's ending was gloriously self-reflexive, as the Mayor rather bitterly
observed that he would now become the laughing-stock of poets and dramatists (like Gogol himself). The production ended with
a collective sharp intake of breath as the councillors realized that they now had to deal with the real government
inspector, while coping at the same time with the humiliation of being gulled by Khestakov.
The cast obvously enjoyed themselves with Alaistair Beaton's racy translation. If
I had to single out anyone for commendation, it would be Ritter's Mayor.