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SCAN 2003

Hoist theatre collective

Jonathan Marshall

Mikhail Bakhtin argued that we only attain our social identity through our public interactions and performances. Carnivalesque performance therefore constitutes the supreme manifestation of unmasked social reality, in which everyone’s adopted roles only function because of their temporary public acceptance. This gives carnivalesque literature its radical quality, up-ending oppressive social hierarchies by crowning the fool “king for the day”, the latter’s role no less real for its fictional, performative character. Like the St Petersburg conman from Gogol’s play who enthusiastically acts the part of government inspector after being mistaken for one, fictional performance becomes true if everyone believes it—a reality today’s politicians know well. Director Daniel Schlusser has drunk deep of such Russian philosophy in praise of literary “dialogism”, carnivalism, masquerade, satire and anarchy. Schlusser’s madly careening production of The Government Inspector for the Hoist theatre collective was replete with performers, largely without artifice, taking on several roles or characters, often in the same breath. Men play women, women play men and the whole edifice of theatrical convention comes tumbling down.

If, as Bakhtin and Shakespeare both claimed, society is a theatre, then Schlusser’s society was one in which the enduring conventions were deliberately arbitrary, shifting from moment to moment, and never entirely relied upon. Often it felt as if we were at a light-hearted “event” rather than a “play” per se, or possibly a free-form (yet well-rehearsed) reading.

Partly because it’s a fundamental convention that sex and gender are essentially immutable social realities, I found the forceful inversion of these rules especially satisfying. Stephen Clements, after standing with his deep cheeks sucking in and out, doffed his helmet-like fur cap and stepped from his coat to reveal his impressive, long, stockinged legs and a fashionably spiked shock of silver hair which would not have been out of place among either the cashed-up dames of Melbourne’s haute shopping strips, or at a Les Girls review—from nervous, corrupt provincial judge to wife of a local petty worthy, in one deft transition.

Schlusser recorded in the program notes that the show’s dramaturgy was based upon “‘theatre crimes’...counter-intuitive responses” such as “to upstage your fellow actor” or “ignore the audience and each other.” Amid all of this artful chaos, it was largely the actors’ commitment to the text—as well as to a common sense of fun and mischief—that ensured things did not fall completely apart. Schlusser staged Gogol’s script unedited, causing the show to run at 3 hours, so the audience returning after interval was notably smaller than before. Although this was frankly over-taxing, it did mean the 4th wall between actor and spectator was annihilated, both having experienced a theatrical auto-da-fe of endurance. By packing so many ideas and so much performative freedom and plasticity into a single production, Schlusser’s reach did somewhat exceed his grasp, but The Government Inspector was more impressive because of its massively conceited excesses.

Nikolai Gogol, The Government Inspector, Hoist Theatre Co., Melbourne, July 10-27

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 10

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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