Well we all knew the play listed on the original subscription ticket, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ was no longer on the program after the estate of the co-author Ellen Barry would not release it to Belvoir. Oops. That’s a bit embarrassing. Belvoir had already cast the play and sold tickets to a show that couldn’t be performed in their season. Never mind…there’s always a solution. How about ‘The Government Inspector’ ala Simon Stone? Umm…didn’t excite me, nor many others who’d already bought tickets and many of them were probably calling the theatre for a refund. How can you rescue such a monumental cock-up?
And that’s the mindset I went in with when I saw the show this week. The theatre was half empty. Oh dear. ‘I've got tickets to a lemon’ ran through my mind. Enter actor Robert Menzies, dressed as a vicar and addresses the audience with an apology and named the elephant in the room. “This is not the play you bought tickets for. Feel free to leave. You’re not even going to see ‘The Government Inspector’. Feel free to leave.” OK, I’m intrigued and now I really do want to stay. I’m glad I did.
‘The Government Inspector’ is a wonderful satire on the situation they found themselves in, using the structure and premise of the original play to poke fun at itself, their director, each other and Belvoir. The play we are watching is the imposter and we are seduced by it. I felt like every criticism I’ve ever had of all of the above was woven into the play, written by Simon Stone and Emily Barclay with assistance from the cast. It’s a pity that Belvoir think I’m being disrespectful to the artists when I say it but when they own it, it’s hilarious. But it was a refreshing parody of ego, acting and entertainment.
Favourite jabs included nods to the youthful wankery of Stone, the inherent misogyny in the theatre, the arrogance of theatre companies, the theatrical over narrative, the desperate need for work as an artist and the power of the director in controlling a fixed vision of the play, the European influence on performance and the banter between the actors as they vie for control and assert their ego and reputation into the mix. It asks you to consider what's real and what's fake or contrived and what will we do or watch without question. It’s an entertaining blend of the backstage mundaneness of rehearsals, the workings of the theatre, the relationship between director and actors and like a version of ‘Noises Off’, it then throws them all together to create a farce of epic proportions, culminating in a devised musical parody of ‘The Government Inspector’, written by Stefan Gregory.
But nothing topped my favourite line, as actress Zahra Newman storms off stage, after a huge fight with the foreign ‘director’, played by Gareth Davies, and yells “I’ve been directed better by set designers”. I laughed a little too long and quickly, paying homage to the travesty that was their ‘Private Lives’, directed by designer and artistic director Ralph Myers. And kudos to Myers for the set of ‘The Government Inspector’. Yes, it’s a Simon Stone revolving stage (anybody counting how many of those we’ve seen in his productions so far?) but to capture the backstage and on stage, it’s the perfect device, particularly when you see how they use it.
The ensemble, and they truly are- Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Robert Menzies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone do a terrific job in being absolutely heightened and twisted versions of themselves with their tongue-in-cheek characterisations. It’s Stephen Colbert on stage. Stone has proven with this production and with the assistance of Barclay that he has a great sense of humour and when the chips are down, laughter will be a much better remedy than a glass box (and I’m counting the washing machines and dryers on stage as several glass boxes).
If you had any doubts, rest assured that this play will alleviate them. Malthouse and Belvoir have staged a play that goes some way to addressing the crisis they found themselves in and I think have come out of the ‘wash’ all the better for it. The play runs for ninety minutes without interval and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s much better than perhaps you could have hoped.