Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for us
A CurtainUp London Review
The UN Inspector
David Farr has modernized the relevance of Gogol's exposure of greed, folly and pride. Set fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, independence for this tiny backwater state was meant to herald a new era of democracy, freedom and justice. Instead, the country is run by a few despotically ambitious, nepotistic and acquisitive potentates. When they hear of an impending inspection by the UN, they fear for their cosily immoral pre-eminence. Pouncing upon a well-dressed westerner as their judge, they spare no effort in winning him over. This includes erecting fake signs to conceal the impoverished, neglected north of the country and pretending that the cast of a glossy doctor soap opera are the real inmates of the new IMF-funded hospital. In an inspired twist of comedy writing, the pseudo-inspector turns out to be an incompetent, deluded fool who believes that all the obsequious attention he receives is simply tardy recognition of his true worth. The officials interpret his appearance: "He's UN all over: on the surface completely ineffective, but one slip and he'll tear you apart."
Michael Sheen plays this pretentious, egotistical buffoon with frenetic, hilarious energy. Slightly unhinged, blustering, deceitful and greedy, Sheen nevertheless conveys sympathy for this character unwittingly plunged into state intrigues. Other notable performances in an exemplary cast are Kenneth Cranham as President Skvosnik whose dearest wish is to be invited to the White House for chilli beef and fries; his ruthless social-climber wife Anna Andreyevna (Geraldine James); the "most unintelligent" head of intelligence Ivan Kuzmich Sphyokin (Geoffrey Beevers); and the dourly merciless former-KGB minister for finance Stepana Ivanovna (Elizabeth Bell).
The set and costumes reveal the influx of tacky new capitalism, grossly bloated fortunes and Eurovision-style tastelessness, a cross between Tsarist-scale wealth and McDonald's style. Surrounded by huge gilt frames and golden pillars topped with oversized busts of the President and his wife, the bureaucrats calm their perturbation with French fries.
The writing is thick with wittily perceptive lines and conceits -- for example, the officials are only aware that slums exist because they pass them on their way to the ski slopes or spas. When discussing how impartially the privatisation contracts of public services were handed out, it emerges that the Minister for Education (Sam Cox) gave the national electricity supply to his daughter as a sixteenth birthday present. Although darker and more sinister than Gogol's original, Farr has included a similar mix of cleverly comic satire and vaudeville farce. In fact, the play is full of contrasts: grotesque humour and sharp wit is juxtaposed with the cruelty and mass privation suffered by the victims of the criminal politicians. In the final scene, machine gun fire on the offstage protesting crowds is interspersed with the officials gloating over their apparent impunity. The shifts in tone do not always work perfectly, but the evening is stimulating, unafraid to engage with contemporary issues and above all, entertaining.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.