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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Laughter and rage from page to stage

Yer actual culture
Thursday night there I teamed up with Gavin, Michael and Liam at Glasgow's Tron Theatre to see the Communicado Theatre Company's production of the late poet Adrian Mitchell's adaption of Nikolai Gogol's classic 1836 play, The Government Inspector. (Check the poem on Mitchell's homepage and you'll get some idea of why this man- whose name was utterly unknown to me before Thursday, has been so lamented: poems like Song in Space could conceivably finally heal the scars inflicted on yours truly- as on so many others, by poetry at school.)

Gogol: titan and progenitor
The father of one of the greatest literary movements in world history- the great Russians; of whom Dostoyevsky once said "We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat.'"; Gogol's works weren't new to me. A friend had lent me Dostoyevsky's (Memoirs from) The House of the Dead back in mid-80's Edinburgh. Astounded and entranced by the world I had entered, for several years thereafter I read as many of the works of these Russians as I could get my hands on. Dostoyevsky was my favourite and I also sampled Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov as well as Gogol. Later I became fascinated with the Russian revolution- whose conseqences reverberated down through history as strongly as ever back in the 1980's and 90's, and I read up on that subject more avidly even than I had consumed the literature.

Consequences, consequences
Steeped as I am then in the social and cultural background against which Gogol's writings are set; likewise the social explosion- and its tragic consequences, triggered by the issues he took as his subjects: the play's opening sent me quickly into a peculiar and delightful transport.

Russian peasants: from whose teeming masses will have been screwed every ruble and kopek diposed of so liberally by the characters in The Government Inspector

Communicado casts its spell
The performance began with the cast performing Russian music as if in a salon ensemble, very conducive to the atmosphere and repeated throughout the performance to great effect. This over, the scene quickly changed (quick scene changes- carried out by the cast, were a key feature of the piece; they had to be really quick so as not overly to interrupt the performance's breakneck pace) to the drawing room of the house of the Governor of a backwater provincial town somewhere in Russia. Bad news soon arrived: the town was to be visited by a Government Inspector; the finger-pointing began and the stink of corruption rapidly filled the air.

The sheer- almost timeless, primitiveness of peasant life in the vast hinterlands of which the town in The Government Inspector was a far flung and insignificant hub

The quality of the production was already evident. I was particularly impressed by the dialogue: moving as snappily as that in a Marx Brothers movie it nonetheless retained the effect of real people relating to each other, as opposed to actors just delivering their lines at each other. This must be very difficult to write and to perform.

It was around this point that the social and cultural references of the language began to tell on my imagination. In my mind's eye I could see the stinking hovels, the toilers in the fields, the strutting nobles and the ignorant priests. I could almost hear the groans of the overworked labourers; the cries under the lash of the knout; the sneers of the parasitic elites at the crudity of the bedraggled masses; the aimless witterings of big-city wannabes in their soulless provincial parlours. In short: the whole world Gogol had distilled into The Government Inspector sprang to vivid life in my head. A transport of delight as I said.

The plot thickens
The laments and recriminations of the town's Governor, Judge, Teacher and Doctor done, the bad news got worse. In a brilliant comedy turn played with superlative timing and which had the audience roaring, two local landowners arrived with grave news: not only was the Government Inspector already in town; he'd been there for two whole weeks, living it up in the inn on his fat expense account.

Further lamentations and recriminations ensued, after which we cut to the inn. There we met the Government Inspector's servant; from whom we learned that the much-feared Petersburg man was a mere petty clerk- wastrel and spendthrift to boot, on his way back to the nearby family home with his tail between his legs. This sad sack had nothing more on his mind than where his next meal was coming from because he'd squandered all his money losing at gambling, and the innkeeper had refused him any more credit (the truth of the 'fat expense account').

I cut to the chase
Thus Gogol set the scene for a comedy of mistaken identity played out as the collision between two groups of utterly selfish and quite self-deluding characters whose mendacity was like quicksilver as they tripped from one venal emotion to the next. They were more vile than the most evil of Hollywood blockbuster villains- no matter the megalomaniacal scope of their murderous schemes, because these people were so believably human. A mark of this was the inevitable final reveal: truly terrible; completely deserved.

And so?
A ticklish ambiguity
Profoundly observed rip-roaring delight though this production was, one small thing nagged away at me throughout the performance: where did Gogol end and Mitchell begin? Familiar from watching docudramas, this feeling reached its peak in the troika scene near the end. Prophetic about the fate of Russia in a way reminiscent of the Grand Inquisitor parable in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov- which to me was pregnant with reference to the tragic transition of Bolshevism into Stalinsim, this scene seemed to me to be just too good to be true. That is to say: I felt that it had to have been written with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Disappointingly this is apparently so.

The 3rd dimension and the 4th wall
Thursday night's performance was also a potent illustration of the power of theatre as a narrative space. The Tron's auditorium is small, with highly banked seats looming several metres above the floor on which the actors perform. In this sense the audience are dominant over a cast deprived of the power of their usual platform and proscenium arch. Of course this relationship was turned upside down as soon as the performance began: the casts' physical presence simply took control of the space, and therefore of us.

More interesting even than that was the way in which the staging played games with the 4th wall to subvert the dynamic tension already created between audience and cast. This seems to me to have worked on several levels:
  • Speeches and asides were often delivered at the audience but not to us: so tacitly ackowledging the 4th wall.
  • Once- maybe twice IIRC, we were directly addressed: so piercing the 4th wall.
  • Stepping outside the narrative and so the need for a willing suspension of disbelief the musical interludes dispensed with the 4th wall entirely.
I suspect that these little games worked to make our minds more receptive to the drama, eg. contributing significantly to opening up my imagination to its little transport of delight. If I am correct in this, I think that it just goes to show the abiding merits of Bertolt Brecht's theories of epic theatre. I've long been convinced that Brecht was right on the mark with these ideas, so I guess I can say that this was the icing on an already delicious cake. ;)
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