Inspect yourself

The accidental triumph of a nobody returns to the stage in two very different versions of Gogol's classic
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As Basil Fawlty would attest, the news that there are incognito inspectors in the vicinity can result in catastrophically misplaced suspicion. The prototype of this scenario is Nikolai Gogol's 1836 play, The Government Inspector. The play gives two brilliant twists to the staple "mistaken identity" comic plot. Through the frantic behaviour of the corrupt mayor and dodgy officials of a provincial backwater, it shows how paranoid terror can project itself on to the wrong person.

As Basil Fawlty would attest, the news that there are incognito inspectors in the vicinity can result in catastrophically misplaced suspicion. The prototype of this scenario is Nikolai Gogol's 1836 play, The Government Inspector. The play gives two brilliant twists to the staple "mistaken identity" comic plot. Through the frantic behaviour of the corrupt mayor and dodgy officials of a provincial backwater, it shows how paranoid terror can project itself on to the wrong person.

The second twist - a stroke of genius - is that Khlestakov, the man wrongly assumed to be the dreaded inspector, is an impoverished ne'er-do-well from St Petersburg, and just the kind of deluded crank who'll think that all the adulation is long-overdue recognition of his true worth.

This month sees the opening of two new versions of the masterpiece. At Chichester, Martin Duncan directs a production that uses a fresh, witty translation by Alistair Beaton. At the National Theatre, as part of the Travelex £10 season in the Olivier, there's The UN Inspector, an exuberant free adaptation that updates the play from provinces in Tsarist Russia to a small former Soviet republic.

The Khlestakov figure here is a British visitor, Martin Remmington Gammon - a nonentity, "the worst estate agent in the world", and a man who aspires to be the sort of public-school crook who makes millions snapping up property in the ex-Soviet Union. Instead, he's mistaken for a UN inspector and treated to a taste of the attention he feels he has always deserved.

The author and director is David Farr, former co-chief of Bristol Old Vic and now Neil Bartlett's successor at the helm of the Lyric, Hammersmith. His extraordinarily wide-ranging CV includes adaptations of everything from Paradise Lost to a Crime and Punishment relocated to Dalston; sharp Shakespeare for the RSC; and original plays such as Elton John's Glasses and The Danny Crowe Show, about a couple of celebrity-craving youths who fool a confessional TV show that they are parricidal devil-worshippers.

Con artistry - "cunning and conning, deception and dishonesty, the phoney and fake" - is also the theme of this year's season at the Chichester Festival Theatre. There are productions of Molière's Scapino, or The Trickster and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a Frank Loesser musical that focuses on a window-cleaner who uses a crass self-help book to wheedle his way to the top.

Beaton says Khlestakov departs in singular ways from your average con-man. "What's wonderful is that he stumbles into the situation as a nobody, an empty vessel, and the chance for corruption is presented to him on a silver tray.

"There are no real human relationships left in the world Gogol depicts. Everything depends on skilled sycophancy and bribery. Of course, Khlestakov is an opportunist, but he's almost lovable because at least he's the innocent beneficiary of corruption rather than its instigator," Beaton says.

Some years ago, Michael Sheen, the actor who plays Gammon/Khlestakov in The UN Inspector, portrayed another classic fantasist, Ibsen's Peer Gynt. "The difference," Sheen argues, "is that Peer knowingly fantasises and tells stories to manipulate certain situations, whereas with Gammon in our play it's almost like there's no conscious manipulation going on."

In both Gogol and Farr, the Khlestakov figure does have a mad messianic streak. Sheen says: "We've talked in rehearsals about him being on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. It could all come crashing in. I remember saying to David early on, 'Do you want the character to be somebody you could take off the stage and put into the street, or is this somebody who could only exist in the theatre?'"

Beaton is an old Gogol hand. During Duncan's directorship of Nottingham Playhouse, he adapted The Nose, a fantastical story in which the olfactory organ of a civil servant declares its independence and goes on a career-jeopardising walkabout in St Petersburg.

For this version of The Government Inspector, Beaton has done some judicious pruning, introduced small additions, converted all the asides into choric dialogue and tried to convey what, he says, generally gets lost in translation - the "fractured, broken-glass" quality of Gogol's language.

Farr has gone in for a wholesale update. By relocating to a former Soviet republic, The UN Inspector makes black comic capital out of the moral vacuum left by Communism and the desperate desire of the locals to be more Western.

Gammon constitutes a parody of their cravings. Here, the unfinished hospital "funded by banks from 12 countries", of which our supposed inspector is given a tour, is being used not to care for the sick but as the money-spinning set of a TV soap, Ambulance Division - a fact that goes serenely unnoticed by Gammon.

"In our version," says the author, "the characters invest enormous energy in either embracing the West or rejecting it, and because of the global nature of the thing - pipelines, air bases, what have you - the stakes are raised and also the menace."

Gammon's presence arouses a stamped-on protest march against the abuses of human rights, and he's besieged by a delegation of businessmen complaining that they have to pay the mafia for protection against the government, and vice versa. "But somehow," says Farr, "the comedy still relies on this being fundamentally a small and small-minded community. Comedy is good at analysing and dealing with evil because it doesn't present it as evil, but a collection of banalities."

An impostor pretending to be a concert pianist, say, would be rumbled instantly. Would a fake director be fingered? "I couldn't possibly say," laughs Farr, before admitting that "if you were really useless, other people would fill in the gaps. You'd probably get away with the entire thing."

'The UN Inspector', National Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000), to 5 October; 'The Government Inspector', Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781 312), 24 June to 10 September

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