Malthouse: The Government Inspector

Robert Menzies nervously faces the audience dressed as a priest. He explains how the night’s performance of The Government Inspector was meant to be The Philadelphia Story but it’s not and it’s also not The Government Inspector. Confusing? Nah.

The Government Inspector. Photo by Pia Johnson
Photo by Pia Johnson

When Malthouse and Belvoir announced their 2014 seasons, Simon Stone was going to direct The Philadelphia Story. Woo hoo! Wonderful play re-created by the guy who made Chekov and Ibsen rock and who can do no wrong (and was even forgiven the hiccough with the rights over Death of a Salesman).

Then just as everything was ready to roll, the Philly rights were refused. What! It’s out of copyright; it’s way more than 70 years since writer Philip Barry wrote it. But it turns out that Ellen Barry was the co-author and retains the copyright. But how the heck can anyone know that if she’s not credited as a co-author on the scripts or any writing about the play? This debarcle is all made very clear over the night.

Google, can I see a pdf of The Philadelphia Story play script, please? Ellen Barry is not credited as the author – anywhere!  But it’s clear on the imprint page that Ellen S. Barry owns the copyright until 2039 and there’s the the usual licensing fees blah blah blah.

Oh copyright blah blah blah is just rich people getting richer off poor artists. Until someone uses your work and doesn’t pay you.

If it was a publicity stunt, it’s brave and brilliant. If it’s a stuff up, the result is insane and brilliant.

So back to Rob trying to explain what happened, but it’s easier to just go back three weeks and see what happened when the Philly cast (Rob, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zarah Newman, Eryn-Jean Norvill and Greg Stone) were backstage and heard the news. Zarah didn’t want to take the dress off, Mitchell was on the phone to Play School, Gareth wanted a snack and Simon buggered off.

But of course he didn’t, and with Emily Barclay at the ready to write and Ralph Myers ready to create a set to reveal laugh, Simon and his cast went mighty meta and created a play that plays with the absurdity and reality about faking it in the theatre – while riffing off The Government Inspector by Gogol (totally public domain), which is about a stranger being mistaken for someone important and the stranger making the most of his impostering.

The actors are all exaggerated versions of the worst bits of themselves – which shows how wonderful each one of them is – and as genres are thrown into the farce, it gets more farcical and more hilarious by the minute.

Unless you think too hard. It’s best not to and to enjoy every in-joke and laugh at ourselves as theatre goers, rather than wondering if the indulgence on the stage is laughing at us.

There’s nothing at all wrong with self indulgence. Who doesn’t love getting expensive ice cream rather than home brand. But here Simon’s bought every flavour of the best stuff, added freshly whipped cream, chocolate sauce, salted caramel praline, edible gold leaf and hand-crafted sugar sprinkles carved in his likeness.

It’s so outrageously full on and delicious that it can’t be resisted.

But you know that you can only get away with such a creation once.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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