Belvoir’s Production of Gogol’s “The Diary of a Madman,” with Geoffrey Rush, comes to BAM

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Geoffrey Rush as Aksentii Poprishchin in Belvoir's production of "The Diary of a Madman" at the BAM. Photo Stephanie Berger.n

Geoffrey Rush as Aksentii Poprishchin in Belvoir's production of "The Diary of a Madman" at the BAM. Photo Stephanie Berger.n

“The Diary of a Madman”
by Nikolai Gogol
Adapted by David Holman with Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Neil Armfield

Set design by Catherine Martin
Costume design by Tess Schofield
Lighting design by Mark Shelton
Sound design by Paul Charlier
Music by Alan John (after Mussorgsky)

Aksentii Poprishchin – Geoffrey Rush
Tuovi/Sophia/Tatiana – Yael Stone
Musician – Paul Cutlan
Musician – Erkki Veltheim

Nikolai Gogol finished only three two plays, “Revizor” (“The Government Inspector”), which has been such a mainstay over the years, it could be considered the Russian equivalent of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “The Gamblers,” which appears every now and then, and “Marriage,” which is almost never produced, at least outside Russia. Yet he was involved in theater since his childhood in the Ukraine, and his other works are constantly drawn to the stage, as if by magnetism. To name only the best known examples, “The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” and “The Diary of a Madman,” all have found a secure place for themselves on stage, either as operas or as plays, above all the “Diary,” which turns up every few years in New York or some other major city, usually as a solo performance. If a quick survey of newspaper reviews is worth anything, it seems to succeed more often than it fails. “Diary” is, in its own surreptitious way, as much of a standard as “Revisor.” (The title sounds so much better as a single word!) This past winter the Madman—in the guise of the great Australian actor, Geoffrey Rush—travelled from Sydney to Brooklyn, striking like a bolt of lightning.

Both Geoffrey Rush and director Neil Armfield, who collaborated on the adaptation with David Holman (working from a literal translation by Robert Dessaix), have collaborated for over twenty years as guiding spirits of Belvoir, the now famous stage company in Sydney. Last year, as he began to think of leaving Belvoir, Armfield approached Rush with the idea of doing one last show together, a revival of a 1989 production, which jump-started their careers and Belvoir—Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”—with the same designers of set, costume, and lighting. If there is something nostalgic about this, the result is as fresh as could be. This may mark the end of Armfield & Rush at Belvoir, but, especially in view of the extreme athleticism of Mr. Rush’s performance, it is hard to imagine that it is really the last, unless some other circumstances drive them in different directions.

Ecce amens! Since Eric Lewin Altschuler’s brief but interesting 2001 article in the British Medical Journal, it has been fashionable to invoke his claim that Gogol’s short story is the earliest description of the schizophrenia, but that has nothing to do with this production, which was originally conceived years before the publication, and besides Armfield & Rush had no interest whatsoever in portraying Poprishchin as a diseased person in need of a cure, but as a sort of hero, at least a hero of the stage, who can take charge of it and our minds for some two hours, and not only entertain us royally—and that is meant literally, since Poprishchin becomes the King of Spain—but to dominate us—in a benevolent and enlightening way, to be sure—as a brilliant comedian dominates his audience. Rush’s Poprishchin is an art pour l’art madman. We are not meant to be worrying about the causes of his madness, whether he was raped by a priest, syphilized by a parent, or simply dropped on his head. We are not to see him as a reflection of the social problems of our own time, when we see the rewards of employment shrinking to something like Poprishchin’s, and we read in the newspapers about bankers who seem to be every bit as looney as he. We are simply to accept him on his own terms, as a product of his circumstances, and as much the circumstances of being human as of being a low-grade bureaucrat in Tsarist Russia…or simply as a phenomenon of existence…I was about to say god’s creation, but I don’t think that comes into it here. Gogol has been regarded as a realist and as a fantasist, as a social critic and a moralist: it us obvious that there are many sides to his personality and his art. Armfield & Rush have brilliantly captured that multiplicity of Gogol’s nature…the artist’s schizophrenia? They have created a show of their own, with its strange colors and disassociated details of everyday life: Poprishchin’s lack of opportunity, the bad food he is given to eat, the news that passes him by, irrelevant to his circumscribed life. If, to survive, he finds it necessary to fall in love with a young woman, not only above his station, but the daughter of a supervisor who especially despises him, if he needs to pry gossip from her lapdog, if he needs to be crowned the King of Spain, almost as far away from Russia as Poland was from Calderón’s Spain, that’s life. Rush’s Poprishchin is a survivor, even in the madhouse, and, as such, he is a hero.

Rush & Armfield took their inspiration from a character both of them especially love, Daffy Duck. Cartoon characters were real entities for those of us, who like Armfield, Rush, and myself visited them weekly at the local movie theater. We participated in their dilemmas and misfortunes, and rejoiced in their victories, which they achieved through the sheer, all-conquering wackiness of their personalities and the mind-bending powers of animation. Geoffrey Rush, with his amazing vocal and physical powers, can do on the stage what Daffy does on celluloid. I don’t think I know of any actor who quite has Rush’s range of expression. He is the master of understatement as much as he is of extravagant exhibitionism. This show was, it should be clear, not a tour de force or any sort of a vehicle from Mr. Rush, it was artistry in the service of Gogol…and I’d like to think that Gogol would have been transported by it, especially in his final demented years.

When I first met Poprishchin in his garret, he at first resembled nothing so much as a clown, with his white and red makeup, his wild carrot-colored wig, and garish, ill-fitting clothes. By contrast, this clown was not trying to amuse the audience with his set routines, he was attempting most purposefully to communicate something about his life, occasionally rather ferociously, no matter how much he rambled. Often enough he seemed only semi-conscious of any listener, nattering on to himself about his daily toils and humiliations. (The moments of ferocity are very much in the line of Daffy Duck, and Geoffrey Rush can be every bit as sharp and menacing as Daffy.) The appearance of the garret was more like how he might experience it in his soul: lacerated, blood-red walls and a lairy green ceiling. The furniture and other objects in the room are suitably wretched. Two vast piles of aging newspapers climb up a corner at stage right as far as the ceiling.

At this point Poprishchin is not entirely isolated, he reads the news, goes to plays, to work, and he takes an interest—either one of attraction or condemnation—in the people he meets, as well as their servants…and pets. His own servant Tuovi, an ignorant Finnish girl he found around town, comes and goes, attending to his needs and responding with exaggerated feeling to his contretemps and foibles. Tuovi speaks only the few words of Russian Poprishchin has taught her, and her primary means of communication consist of torrents of Finnish and shrill ejaculations. If Poprishchin passes beyond the limits of broad comedy within a few lines, the part of Tuovi is conceived largely within its parameters. Yael Stone plays the part with terrific energy and physicality, and she eventually gets to modulate into other keys as Sophia and Tatiana in the madhouse scenes of the second act. Ms. Stone was impressive, although I couldn’t help finding the running jokes spun around linguistic bafflements a bit tedious after a while—the one criticism I would make about this remarkable show. The part of Poprishchin’s maid, called Mavra in Gogol’s original, is considerably expanded in this version.

Yael Stone in the Madhouse n Belvoir's production of "The Diary of a Madman" at the BAM Harvey Theater. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Yael Stone in the Madhouse n Belvoir's production of "The Diary of a Madman" at the BAM Harvey Theater. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Poprishchin holds his own against the indignities and boredom of his clerical job. He is convinced that he is above it, as sensitive as he is to his superiors’ slights and favors. Occasionally he doesn’t show up for work; later he forswears it entirely. As the story of his infatuation with unfolds, Geoffrey Rush measures out its progress with extravagant color, but masterly control as well. He leads us through each episode of the affair, from his following the young woman, Sophie, home, to his elaborate plot to interview her lapdog and his consort. On one level his navigation of the circumstances seems natural enough, making one’s realization of the enormity of his insanity all the more shocking: the civil servant is gossiping with dogs as if they were people of particular stations in society. That cuts two ways, of course: we experience the unhinging of Poprishchin’s mind, while we observe the pretensions and intrigues of the society he lives in. This production never fails to maintain an even flow of absurdity between the madman and the “normal” world he lives in. Poprishchin’s way of coping may be as good as any. Tsar Nicholas’ Russia has in him the sort of citizen it deserves. This exchange of blood between social satire and the psychological portrait, which was groundbreaking in its time, is the essential factor that gives the story its power, and Armfield and Rush not only respected it, they dove into it with passion and created a production that is “over the top” in every way—just as it should be in a madshow.

In the first act Poprishchin was rather more an entertainer and a social critic, in the second, as he is taken away to the madhouse, his clown wig disappears, and he appears before us shorn and in rags, eventually almost naked. There he is brutalized by the doctors and the orderlies, and his derangement grows to a dimension where it is no longer amusing, but tragic. The feminine manifests itself now mainly as hallucination, whether the woman is real or not. Poprishchin knew he was the heir to the Spanish throne already before he entered the asylum. Rush once again follows his progress to the throne with a steady focus on each stage of the dissolution of Poprishchin’s personality. Once this line of development has reached its peak, his antics grow into a kind of symphonic finale. Lunacy is no longer a desperate survival mechanism, but a mode of being in itself. Geoffrey Rush’s already extreme exercises become violent in character, although not in result. At the very end, he jumps into the aisle, connecting with individual members of the audience directly. At this point Armfield & Rush’s “Madman” is no longer a psychological study, but a celebration of madness.

I should add that the performance was eloquently supported by two outstanding musicians, Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim, who came with the production from Sydney. The music, partially based on Mussorgsky, was an integral part of the creation. The players interacted with the performers onstage with alert and intimate responsiveness. Sitting in the orchestra, I could barely hear the amplification that is necessary for the balcony.

As I researched this review, it came as a surprise to realize just how often “The Diary of a Madman” is produced on stage. A study with as complete a listing as possible of these endeavors would be an fruitful and useful subject for a master’s thesis. Often these were presented as solo performances by some rather obscure actors. Belvoir sent us of of the greats in Geoffrey Rush, and he had an energetic and resourceful partner in Yael Stone. And for all the effect of his tremendous expressive range, he never once gave the impression of indulging in a vehicle for himself.

Geoffrey Rush as Aksentii Poprishchin in Belvoir's production of "The Diary of a Madman" at the BAM Harvey Theater. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Geoffrey Rush as Aksentii Poprishchin in Belvoir's production of "The Diary of a Madman" at the BAM Harvey Theater. Photo Stephanie Berger.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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