TOWARDS the end of Roddy Doyle's Irish version of Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector, the manic mayor demands of his audience "What are you laughing at? It's all of you." (The quote isn't exact, Don Wycherley was ranting far too fast!)
But it made its point: the magic of the play lies in its parodying of all of us in all of our hypocrisy, greed and dishonesty. And you could almost feel the ripple of discomfort around the Abbey auditorium on the opening night of the national theatre's Christmas offering.
Doyle's adaptation of Gogol's masterpiece is masterly: he has put it firmly in Ireland in the 21st Century, with a "gobshite" mayor who addresses the town worthies as "lads". But he has left the scenario in small town Russia of the 19th Century with all its appalling physical deprivations for ordinary people, its barbaric punishments and its ludicrous rituals.
The town worthies wear swords over their very rustic-style grubby layers of parkas and gumboots. It's Gogol in Ireland, not in any way "sub" or "from" the master's work. And for the most part, the wicked and eclectic stewpot works; its disadvantage in remaining so true to its roots is that it seems overlong. We probably wouldn't level that criticism if it had been left with its ponderous Russian sense of humour, but Doyle's lightness of touch and incomparable ear for modern dialogue emphasises rather than diminishes the play's length.
That said, there is little invention or adaptation needed for its circumstances, when the members of a venal town council living on backhanders, bribery and extortion, mistake a travelling ne'er-do-well for a government inspector from St Petersburg. Their attempts to pull the wool over his eyes while he in turn manoeuvres to avoid being unmasked as the unpleasant small-time crook he is slide into Celtic Tiger Ireland as smoothly as a gym-toned property developer into a Savile Row-tailored suit. And just to remind us that there was nothing admirable about the era (as in "Wouldn't we all do it if we had the chance?"), the darkness is there, with public whippings and summary executions for the helpless, ie, useless.
Jimmy Fay directs with extraordinary imagination, making full use of Conor Murphy's magnificently architectural revolve set, and inspiring the actors to physical feats of acrobatics (choreographed by Liz Roche) which wouldn't disgrace a circus artist.
Don Wycherley plays the mayor with levels of thick-ery, insensitivity and gross bad manners that are breathtaking, and his final long soliloquy is nothing short of a tour-de force. Ciaran O'Brien is the sly Khlestakov, slimily taking his chances and leaving devastation in his wake. Marion O'Dwyer turns the stomach gloriously as the mayor's salaciously over-the-hill wife, and Liz Fitzgibbon is a perfect foil as the sad little daughter whose innate decency is rewarded by heartbreak. (The Government Inspector may be a comedy, but it is a very, very dark one.)
Joe Hanley is a devious underminer of all as the "inspector's" servant Osip.
The support is uniformly good from Michael Glenn Murphy, Rory Nolan, Gary Cooke, Jonathan Gunning, Damian Kearney, Mark Doherty and Peter Daly, while there is superb physicality from Daithi MacSuibhne, Karl Quinn and Clare Barrett in minor roles.
Costumes by Catherine Fay are pitch-perfect, Kevin Treacy is the lighting designer, and music is by Denis Clohessy.
Lavish just about sums it up: no expense spared, and to good effect.