Thursday, 15 December 2011

Revising Revizor with Roddy Doyle, or Bobchinskii in Borris-in-Ossory

'So I say to Petr Ivanovich, That fella's got the look of a cute hoor, and Petr Ivanovich calls over Vlas the innkeeper - you know Vlas, his wife just had the babby there three weeks ago; a fine lad he is, he'll be an innkeeper like his daddy - and he says to Vlas, quiet like, he says, Vlas, who's yer man? And Vlas says to us, He's a civil servant, down from St Petersburg'.
It's Bobchinskii speaking, but not quite as we know him; this is Bobchinskii by way of Borris-in-Ossory, in Gogol's The Government Inspector  'utterly – and often delightfully – steeped in Irish demotic speech' by Roddy Doyle in a new adaptation for Dublin's Abbey Theatre. That line about demotic Hiberno-English is probably the only nice remark made by Fintan O'Toole in his scathing review of the production in the Irish Times (which I would largely endorse, although the quality of the acting is much better than he suggests).
The playwright, papped during the interval by the Dinosaur, smiles benignly
O'Toole represents the play as a missed opportunity for the Abbey to reassert itself as an arbiter of Ireland's cultural destiny, and as a ham-handed attempt at political satire that is neither topical nor pungent enough. I found Doyle's The Government Inspector all too topical; its fervid reproduction of trending political buzzwords as one-liners and its use of economic crime as slapstick comedy serve to embed it in a cultural context Ireland already wants to forget and the rest of the world won't remember.

Osip on his master's bed
The glory of this new adaptation is its language. Khlestakov, surrounded with cushions and sweetmeats by the Mayor's family, is heartily assured, 'You're at your granny's'; the Mayor, rejoicing in his daughter's engagement, remarks to his wife, 'Did you ever in your wildest imagine anything the like of this, did you now?' only to reproach himself bitterly minutes later for being an 'eejit' and even 'an out-and-out gobshite'. The men who run the town are 'chancers' and 'wasters', cheerfully inhabiting a culture of brown envelopes and proto-Rabelaisian physical violence. 'We speak the same language', characters reassure each other on several occasions, acknowledging both a lingua franca of venality and a rich lexical transfer between provincial Ireland and provincial Russia. If only Doyle - who turned the tribulations of running a chip van into the greatest sundered bromance since Achilles and Agamemnon, largely through his mastery of the modulations of Dublin conversation - had stopped with this discovery. As he coyly points out in his introduction to the official programme, no less a critic than Nabokov proclaimed that 'only an Irishman' should ever tackle Gogol's verbiage. But instead, as draft followed draft and the Irish economy steadily foundered, Doyle felt impelled to seed his play with political commentary. He couldn't, he felt, actually namecheck markers of disaster like the IMF intervention. But each new, topical failure was an 'elbow' added to the body of his play - as he admits in this short interview. Elbows for nudging while winking, elbows for digging in spite, elbows for pushing yourself or someone else to the front of the queue. Unfortunately, as a Russian proverb warns, you can't bite your own elbow. Similarly, there is no bite in The Government Inspector. It sheds the universality of Gogol's Russian u-topia, but it fails to sink its teeth into the here-and-now of Irish politics. When every character malapropizes Khlestakov's name and patronymic as Ivan Austerovich (instead of Aleksandrovich), or refers aphoristically to community policing and sustainable growth, the audience didn't even laugh. Instead, they reacted uproariously to sheerest slapstick - the fag clamped in the mouth of the Mayor's obstreperous maidservant, or the bathetic epicureanism of Khlestakov's valet Osip, with his endearing gurrier rumble. And the cast are brilliantly selected to supply these predictable laughs (although Khlestakov is hopelessly miscast; O'Toole's snarl about Jedward ten years on is all too accurate).

Both O'Toole and Doyle miss the main point about Revizor, to restore its original title. Gogol would have 'eaten the face off' Roddy Doyle, were he to see the Abbey production, for compounding a misconception that has haunted its author. This play is not about systemic corruption, and it is emphatically not about specific governments; Gogol reacted to the near-universal misunderstanding of his play as daring satire by leaving for Europe. Gogol's writing always suggests much stranger things about human nature than can be contained in any political continuum. In this downloadable article in Scando-Slavica, Jostein Bortnes argues that Revizor is about the inescapability of human evil: Khlestakov is 'a living symbol of evil' which Gogol conjures 'in order to destroy it by laughter'. Khlestakov's escape, followed by the sinister, suspended presence of the real Inspector during the famous dumb scene, allows evil to transcend the limitations of the narrative. Gogol's genie gets out of its bottle, and into the audience - who are we laughing at, after all?

Clearly, Revizor is a play capable of working brilliantly in international contexts. But the contextualization should be carried through completely, if it is to be effected at all. Localizing Gogol kills the universality of his portrait of evil; but if the play must be localized, then give us names and places. Turn Pushkin into Flann O'Brien; turn Baron Brambeus into Joseph O'Connor; and turn Anna Andreevna into Maureen O'Flaherty, since the actors aren't going to get the stress right anyway. Set the whole thing in Kiltimagh for authenticity!

Good man yourself.
That fella's gas altogether....



  1. Oh what a pity, what a wasted opportunity. Getting the language right is so important and so rare, and then to get everything else wrong! I recall an anecdote a friend of mine loves to tell (which he probably invented) about Brendan Behan hollering "Ye've made a muck of me play!" Gogol, of course (not being Irish) would just stalk off morosely.

  2. i'd say one thing both roddy doyle and the abbey production know is how to make the local audience tick. as a russian (though living in ireland continually for the last 15 years), i didn't find the abbey version funny in the least: but i saw the audience roaring in laughter. though during the play i had the same feeling: that an adaptation should've gone the whole way in irishising it, but even then the audience found it all whimsical and cool. so, now looking back, i don't think contemporary irish audience gives a toss about whether it's "pushkin" or "flann o'brien" anymore. new generations here have outgrown those conventions, me thinks: since (just like with the mayor's wife Anna Andreevna) not many in the audience read flann o'brien anyway. it's more about whimsy and fun with the irish these days: the more carnival intermixed with colloquial dublinisms, the funnier to them.

    fintan o'toole, important local writer, complained ( ) in the irish times that the production is sheepish and lacking in boldness as well as universal appeal... but i think, the abbey is content with being a provincial theatre company that above all is familial and domestic, that entertains the locals, talks to them in their language. that's probably how the theatre survives here.

  3. apologies: just noticed you are mentioning the same review by fintan o'toole in your post! circular reference happened in my head, didn't realise that's where i had learned about the review :)

  4. Thanks for reading the post, Cor Gaudens, and I'm pleased we coincide in our opinions about this production: I agree that the audience were too easily persuaded to 'ржать до умопомрачения' as you so colourfully put it in your LiveJournal post. O'Toole's beef, I think, is that he is convinced that the Abbey SHOULD be challenging the status quo and being controversial. I wonder though if this is even achievable in today's Ireland?

  5. Hmm... good question. There are two other productions by the Abbey i had seen in the past 10 or so years. One was Moliere's Tartuffe, adapted by D.Hughes. The other was Translations by B.Friel. Tartuffe took a similar approach to Revizor in making a very nasty, cruel and extremely funny social commentary: I found it much funnier than their Revizor, in actual fact! :) It was just extremely funny and hard to forget.

    B.Friel's Translations was a fine, nuanced take on the tragic Irish identity and linguistic+cultural baggage. I would consider it a very fine play fit for an international stage perhaps even: it does transcend the local sensibilities, has a universal appeal to it. Abbey crew did really well in it.

    I do think that Russian classics can be uber-esoteric and hard to chew for a contemporary audience, even the Russian one. So, perhaps, a lot has to do with the choice of repertoire.

    Abbey as a national theatre within a rather insular culture, where art scene is in decay (thus you are bound to be populistic, democratic as a theatre), has clear limitations in terms of scope of its productions. it's a tricky balance.