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Making the most of misconceptions

THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR. By Nikolai Gogol. Chichester Festival Theatre. In rep to September 10. Tickets: 01243 781312.

Nikolai Gogol's play, set in Tsarist Russia, tells of rank-riddled society where the truth is never told. Timothy Ramsden reports

Director Martin Duncan has been fascinated with Gogol's play since he was young and saw a school production three nights in a row. It also gave him his first professional acting role. Now Chichester's resources allow the play, with its cast of 24, to be mounted in 2005's "con-art" season.

Duncan is sensitive to Gogol's style. Translator Alistair Beaton, a Russian speaker, keeps the irregularities of Gogol's language which other versions have smoothed over. "Russian as a theatre language, and its grammar, was still being worked out when the 1836 play was being written," says Duncan.

The script is "full of unfinished sentences and non-sequiturs, or characters just make sounds. Things don't tie-up".

The play is capable of many interpretations (David Farr's updated version The UN Inspector is in rep at the National's Olivier Theatre); Chichester's young cast members latch on to Gogol's humour in terms of The League of Gentlemen. It's all, Duncan says of the Russian, "seriously funny" and rooted in reality.

Fear and greed drive the action. "This is our behaviour and it shouldn't be; life would be so much simpler if people told the truth," says Duncan, summarising Gogol's view. He points to the moment - extraordinary for its day - where the Mayor steps out of the action, addressing the audience to say it is ourselves we are laughing at. The man who is taken for a government inspector, the clerk Khlestakov, is "an absolutely empty vessel - the lowest of the low. He's not good at what he does and the play's three-quarters through before he asks who people think he is."

He does not ask for bribes, merely for loans once he sees how people give him money. "He's only a conman by default. This is the first time in his life he's had this interest taken in him. He is not colourless, he has his fantasies, but he does not think or learn."

Khlestakov will doubtless lose all the money at the next gambling table.

"He forgets things very quickly. The characters are all as bad as each other. They do not learn from mistakes."

Perhaps Khlestakov believes his fantasies when he speaks them, including his proposal to Marya, the Mayor's daughter - whom Duncan sees as the only sympathetic character: "Her dreams (of wealth married to the government inspector) are shattered, and it's not her fault."

Amid the comedy, there are serious moments, seen in the Sergeant's Widow, flogged in accordance with the rank-riddled rules of Russian society, and the brothers Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, who want only to have it noted that they exist.

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