Revisor is a strange and complicated piece of dance theatre. Watching it requires peeling away the many layers that constitute the work and it feels like trying to find someone hidden under many different disguises. Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s recent collaboration, seen at Sadler’s Wells, requires mental agility, concentration and some knowledge of an unfashionable 19th century Russian farce from which it is inspired. Yet its sophisticated staging, incisive script of word play and puns, eloquent choreography performed by members of Kid Pivot and the silky voices of nine actors carry you along on its fluctuating journey of breaking and building, revising and amending.
There are several things going on in the work: a deconstruction of the original play Revizor by Nikolai Gogol (‘inspector’ in Russian) in 1836; Young’s play-script which unfolds seamlessly into dance; a choreographic undoing of Jonathan Young’s script; a commentary on bureaucracy and a story about mistaken identity rippling out into sub-topics of greed, corruption, deceit and tyranny. The play which is manipulated, pulled apart and put back together again goes as follows: a bureaucratic government ministry somewhere in provincial Russia prepares for an unknown visitor who is rumoured to be an inspector. Panic breaks out amongst the corrupt provincial bureaucrats. The stranger arrives, is greeted by the director and his team of buffoon-like officials and soon works out that they mistake him for an inspector. He’s wined and dined, fawned over by the flirtatious director’s wife and unctuous heads of departments, three of whom visit the stranger in the night and tell him slanderous things about the director, offering bribes to dispose of him. The stranger, performed by Tiffany Tregarthen cross-dressing as a man plays along with their misunderstanding then writes a report disclosing the bullying, slanderous behaviour of its ministers and the general corruption of the ministry before disappearing with his assistant, Osip. The revisor’s canny actions offer a glimmer of redemption and hope as well as humour regarding what he has pulled off and how he has managed it while the theme of disguise and confused identity are enforced through costume, action and word.
The ten dancers perform the play in two rounds – the first one Young’s adaptation of the original play, the second a deconstruction of the adaptation. Through embodying the recorded voices of actors, lip synching to their words, Pite and Kid Pivot set up the play, introduce its characters then excavate the material through abstract, expanded choreography. In the final scene bodies blend literal movement and abstract dance revealing the internal processes of the deconstructed version. For example, a narrator describes phrases of movement in meticulous detail, word-for-word as the performers respond action by action.
Pite, Young and dancers breathe life and texture into the otherwise dry characterless tale of Gogol’s original unpopular play, giving roundness and depth to each of the ten characters. The company portray them as excessive, volatile human beings and the caricatures which emerge through ingenious manipulation of word and movement are ones that we can relate to: the bored glamorous wife Anna craving for attention and change, the highly strung, gibbering postmaster Wieland, the ruthless doctor, the uptight interrogator Klak and the scheming minister Desouza. The inspector/revisor is the outsider of the group, an elite detective messing with this gaggle of greedy, provincial clowns.
What’s so impressive about Revisor is the entanglement of action and text. Movements slip off the words in fast successions of folded limps giving the impression that the characters are constantly falling over. Smoothly they slide of furniture, each other or along the floor, struggling with gravity, yet making everything look effortless. Their unstable physicality mirrors the uncertainty of the characters they play. There’s so much going on here that at times watching (with a throbbing headache) makes me giddy while the combination of text and frenetic action can feel over scripted. However, I appreciate the robust reworking of the original play in search of new meanings that resonate with current political shenanigans.
As the performance progresses and the actory bits morph into supple, meaty choreography, it gets even better. Reflective light designed by Jay Gower Taylor splinters across the cyclorama in bursts of forked lightening, illuminating the now uncluttered stage with a myriad of fractals. Against this visual background, the performers cross the stage as if in slow motion, falling, rolling, unwinding, swinging. Exploring their characters through movement alone, released from the script, Kid Pivot are remarkable to watch tumbling through intricate, detailed, explorative phrases. Their smooth articulations mask the crude clownishness of their characters – disguising them as rather more refined beings.
Pite is convinced that words are necessary to use with dance when dealing with difficult stories. But here she uses dance to rigorously probe a problematic play, refashioning it in multiple thrilling ways to produce a spectacle.