What do you get when you mix a 19th century Russian comedy with a brass band?
What do you get when you mix a 19th century Russian comedy with a brass band? Laura Davis finds out
WHEN Deborah McAndrew imagines the unscrupulous characters of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, they are not buttoned up against a Russian freeze but a West Yorkshire chill.
With a father who worked as an officer for various local councils, in her mind the fictional corrupt officials have always populated the corridors of Leeds Town Hall rather than a pre-revolution backwater.
She is therefore the right choice for the writer of Northern Broadside’s new production of the play, which they insisted must be contemporary, spoken in Northern English vernacular and feature a brass band.
“The first time I read it I thought ‘ah yes, I recognise this world’,” says the former Coronation Street actor (she played Angie Freeman from 1990-98).
“I guess in my little mind as a child I’d imagined these men – they mostly were men in local government in the 60s and 70s – in their dusty offices that hadn’t changed since the 1930s, and that fitted in with what I read in the play.”
In Gogol’s comedy, written in 1836, a police chief interceptes a letter that reveals a government inspector is to visit his town. When Khlestakov, a well-dressed young man, arrives, it is assumed he is the official and he is welcomed with bribes and even an invitation to woo the police chief’s daughter.
“I don’t think it’s particuarly having a pop at local government, it’s having a go at anyone and everyone who’s ever taken a backhander,” says McAndrew.
“In these little dark corners where people aren’t properly scrutinised and where the done thing is to turn a blind eye and take a brown envelope, that’s what happens and a culture of corruption grows up – in any situation. It could be the drug-taking culture of certain athletes.
“People will do what they can get away with, like with the MPs’ expenses. If you can get away with claiming for a duck pond why wouldn’t you?”
Several books later, when his zest for writing began to desert him, Gogol became obsessed with the desire to live a spiritually pure life. He began praying excessively, fasting and carrying out various extreme escetic practices.
He also became involved with a fanatical priest,who it is believed practiced a kind of spiritual sadism on him and, in 1852, ordered Gogol to burn the manuscript of the second volume of his masterwork Dead Souls.
The writer did so, before taking to his bed and refusing to eat. He died days later, three weeks shy of his 43rd birthday.
Aside from the spiritual fervour, McAndrew feels she has found “a bit of a kindred spirit” in Gogol.
“I don’t think I’m going to sink into any kind of religious mania anytime soon,” she insists.
“But I was brought up in quite a religious family. I was quite a devout Catholic as a child but had a Methodist mother so I’ve got a lot of chapel in there as well.
“My dad was very big on public service and civic duty and there’s a lot of socialist politics in my family. We do what’s right, we give according to our ability and we believe in taxation – all those sort of things.
“I’m not saying I’m perfect or I always do the right thing but I grew up in a culture where those things were always talked about.”
She has taken liberties with the script, as was necessary to make it fit a Northern voice, and has snuck in a few contemporary jokes. One of the characters eats a pasty, instead of the pie in Gogol’s original, as a wink to George Osbourne’s hot takeaway food tax that caused Tory MPs including David Cameron to suddenly enthusiastically profess their passions for pasties (“That was a gag that was there for the taking,” laughs McAndrew.)
The requested brass band is integral to the play as it takes the place of the disgruntled and downtrodden townsfolk, who in Northern Broadsides’s version, speak through music rather than words.
Now that The Government Inspector has begun its national tour, McAndrew is focussing on new projects, including a play about beekeeping. She also teaches play writing at Staffordshire University and regularly acts in Radio 4 dramas.
“I do like acting but I like the balance I have at the moment,” she says. “The teaching is great because when you have to talk about what you do sometimes you learn things yourself.”
THE Government Inspector is at the Liverpool Playhouse from November 13-17.