The Diary of a Madman
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
February 20, 2011
I’m gonna cut to the chase. Go see Diary of a Madman at BAM. It’s enthralling. It’s theatrical. It’s hysterical. It’s virtuosic. It’s also reportedly sold out, but don’t let that stop you. You have until March 12th to find a way. I suggest you get to work.
If you do score—or have scored—tickets, you may wrestle with the all-important question when it comes to adaptations: Should I read the story first? In this case, it doesn’t matter. You’ll get something different out of it either way. However, if you haven’t read Nikolai Gogol’s original and want to remain blissfully ignorant of the plot, you should stop reading here.
Diary of a Madman—both the short story and this faithful adaptation—centers on Aksentii Poprishchin, a low-level bureaucrat living alone in a rooming house in Czarist Russia. Over the course of the story, we see him descend further and further into what some have described as the first literary depiction of paranoid schizophrenia. As the title intimates, his descent is viewed through the lens of Poprishchin’s diary entries. These begin as the relatively benign ramblings of a malcontented hermit—the sort of entries any urban loner stuck in a crummy job can relate to. However, everyday griping about his job, his supervisor, and his landlady, as well as professions of love for his boss’s daughter, Sophia, soon turns into something a bit more “off.” He begins overhearing the secret conversations of pet dogs and actively stalking said daughter, whom he dubs “Her Excellency.” Falling deeper and deeper into delusion and isolation, Poprishchin finally winds up where you would expect anyone to wind up who believes themselves to be the deposed King of Spain in early 19th century Russia.
Poprishchin is a man who exists almost entirely in his own mind, and if anyone can pull someone like that off, it’s Geoffrey Rush. His performance in Madman recalled for me his Marquis de Sade in Quills or David Helfgott in Shine. In fact, this is the role that won the attention of Shine’s director, Scott Hicks, when the play was originally produced with the same creative team by Australia’s Belvoir in 1989. As Poprishchin, Rush joyfully flops about like a 19th century Pee-Wee Herman, trapped in his own bare, dreary playhouse. In the program notes, the director (and co-adaptor along with Rush and David Holman) Neil Armfield writes that “[Rush] realized Poprishchin was his great clown.” This is exactly what you get in Rush and his wonderfully game co-star Yael Stone—a dark, mad, terribly entertaining clown show. The entirety of the second act is even complete with a bloody clown nose, thanks to the nip of a priggish lap dog. The bloody nose is a particularly brilliant touch as, like Jack Nicholson’s broken nose courtesy of Roman Polanski in Chinatown, it is an ever-present brand on our hero. In fact, Poprishchin is obsessed with the shapes and sizes of noses throughout, even centering the last words of the play on one. His own nasal injury coincides with a turning point for Poprishchin, when he begins to recede from the outside world completely and sever all ties with reality. The bite—and the fact that he never cleans the blood off—seems to be literally transformative as, soon after, he adopts a much more regal personality. Like the dried blood, his new persona is a thin barrier between his true, confused self and the world, a way perhaps to cope with surroundings and people he just doesn’t understand. Whether Gogol intended it or not, there are hints of Don Quixote toward the end, of a man who is incapable of living in the world as others do. Compared to Poprishchin, though, Don Quixote got off easy.
Complementing his clowning is Rush’s gift for storytelling. He is alone on stage for much of the play, but populates it skillfully and specifically with the people who crowd his mind. It doesn’t hurt that he has help. When not alone, he is joined by Stone, who mainly plays his Finnish housekeeper, Tuovi, but also Sophia (or perhaps his imagining of her) and Tatiana, a fellow inmate of Poprishchin’s. Stone is utterly charming as Tuovi, and the relationship that develops between them as she attempts to learn English (or Russian in the context of the play) is heartbreaking. It is our only picture of someone who truly cares for Poprishchin, and Stone carries off Tuovi’s simultaneous affection and confusion gorgeously. No matter which role she’s inhabiting, the diminutive Stone is able to hold her own with the towering Rush—not a small feat (pun not intended). Rush and Stone are joined by a duo of musicians, Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim, who sit off to the side of the play’s action but whose performances are integral. There is no recorded sound here, and Poprishchin’s tales are scored as if a film that plays in his head. He instructs and chides the musicians throughout as a director would, and the alternating sweetness and aggressiveness of clarinet, fiddle, gong, drum, and the rest in Alan John’s music seem to spur Poprishchin on as much as accompany him.
Rush is also aided tremendously by Catherine Martin’s magnificent set, a blood-red chamber, like the inner sanctum of Poprishchin’s mind, in which light is only let in from above through a skylight and people (real people at least) only enter from below. The skylight is coated with a constant, light rain throughout the first act, and water leaks in threatening to deluge Poprishchin. As full madness sets in during the second act, sunlight fills the room (thanks to the equally magnificent lighting design of Mark Shelton), as if clarity has been found, misguided thought it may be. Tess Chofield’s costumes—with help from wig stylist Kylie Clarke—evoke both clownishness and period dress without overemphasizing either. The beauty of the production’s design is that, rather than battling for attention, all of the elements seem to stem from a single source—Poprishchin—and to serve his purposes. It is something pretty rare: great, humble design.
We all have shows we regret missing. Don’t let Diary of a Madman be one of them. Get to work.