Review of 'The UN Inspector' by David Farr, National Theatre, London
In Gogol's The Government Inspector, provincial officials mistake a conman for a tsarist government inspector. One hundred and seventy years later David Farr's free adaptation, The UN Inspector, takes on their political descendants, as the corrupt dictatorship of an ex-Soviet republic make a similar error, mistaking an opportunistic businessman for a UN inspector.
At first, it's all breezy farce and politically light, apart from a few digs at the privatisation demands of the IMF. Fearing that their corruption and excesses will be exposed, the president and his bumbling cronies arrange a quick tour through the set of a hospital soap, give a few prison cells the Ikea treatment and then concentrate on bribery and junketing.
Martin 'Remmington' Gammon, mistaken for the UN inspector because of his large expense account, has come to try his hand at dealing in cheap property, and takes it as his due that government officials should pamper him and 'lend' him money. We are set up to sympathise with the panicky cabinet and aides, as they run around sticking up public works signs in English and agonise over how to offer bribes. Jokes are at the expense of south London locales and eastern European fashion, with few indicators of a world outside the gilt palaces and fancy hotels for foreigners.
It is only the better to shock us though, as what seems a bit of fluff is suddenly revealed as truly horrific. Comically delivered lines in cheesy Russian accents about 'silencing' journalists are suddenly turned on their heads, as a mother breaks in to beg the UN inspector to find her missing, tortured daughter. An activist's scars are displayed as the real consequences of policies discussed so lightly. The president is first shown as a charming rogue, a sold-out former dissident from the old regime - but it becomes clear how far he will go to hold on to power. The gunfire and chanting from outside the walls of the palace imply a real world of suffering - not only outside the illusion of grandeur and prosperity in the palace, but outside the walls of the National Theatre.
The attitude to the UN and other bodies is ambivalent. The government of the unnamed republic seem genuinely afraid of their corruption and oppression being exposed, but Gammon's easy acceptance of junketing reassures them that he is indeed their inspector. Confronted by activists who want him to actually help them, Gammon is uncomfortable and embarrassed, then recovers and promises to register his condemnation, perhaps the sharpest line in the play. The excellent programme notes refer to the 'Axis of Shhh', places like Uzbekistan whose failings are overlooked due to the needs of western governments, but they're a lot more direct. We never meet the real UN inspector in the play, but it is unclear whether they will actually help the situation. Gratifyingly, the hope is placed in the gathering crowds.
The play has a great cast, and it is funny, even at its fluffiest. Though there are balalaikas and cheesy accents aplenty, all the characters speak in various London accents to indicate when they're speaking in their native tongue (the cheesy accents are reserved for when they speak to Gammon in English), and care is taken not to exoticise them. The UN Inspector is the second play in the National Theatre's current £10 season, and well worth the ticket price.