Geoffrey Rush, in Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman, gives an astonishing bravura performance that sold out the month-long run that ends at Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend. But his over-the-top comedic interpretation of the tragic protagonist, while wildly entertaining, leaves the audience emotionally unmoved.
by Jason Edward Kaufman
“Tickets were like gold dust.” That’s what I was told about Belvoir Theatre’s production of The Diary of a Madman when I was in Sydney in January. Aussies flocked to see their Oscar/Tony/Emmy-winning compatriot Geoffrey Rush reprising a role he first took on at Belvoir in 1989; there wasn’t a seat left for the remainder of the run. Luckily, the production came to Brooklyn Academy of Music where I caught up with it and discovered what all the fuss had been about. It is a wildly entertaining night of theater.
The play, directed by Belvoir’s co-founder Neil Armfield, is a stage version of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 first-person short story that traces a low-level civil servant’s descent into insanity. It’s more or less a monologue delivered by Aksentii Poprishchin (Rush), a 40-something “clerk of the ninth grade” who lives alone in a squalid boarding house in Saint Petersburg. The main action is his setting down entries in his journal and reading them aloud, describing his activities around town and disclosing the fretful workings of his erratic mind. These outpourings reveal him to be arrogant, aggrieved, anxious and prone to ravings — a mix that Rush expresses with manic dynamism and intensity. I arrived at the theater overtired, wishing I were home in bed, but from the first line Rush had me rapt and I remained so for the entire two hours plus.
Geoffrey Rush was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the urbane speech therapist in The King’s Speech, a performance distinguished by reserve and understatement. Nothing could be further from his interpretation of
Poprishchin, which is marked by a hyper-articulation of fluctuating emotions. His face is a montage of expressions as he rages against everyone and everything – his landlady, his meals, the bourgeoisie, and his boss, whom he accuses of “masterminding the enslavement of the entire world by Mohammedanism.” Moving about the stage like an over-caffeinated Mick Jagger, Rush plays the madman as an angry clown, his limbs flailing and hands paddling the air with the zany freneticism of a silent-film comic.
The costumes (Tess Schofield) are comparably over-the-top, draping Poprishchin like a Weimar cabaret queen in a long burgundy velvet frock and ascot, and distorting his face with red lipstick and torquoise eyeshadow beneath a pageboy of wispy red hair and a tuft of bangs. This gaudy, campy getup is more decadent eccentricity than sexual ambiguity, although that’s there, too. And the set (Catherine Martin) is a squalid chthonic garret with a rain-streaked skylight in the slanting green-copper ceiling, lurid red encrusted walls, a rickety metal bed, a little table and chair, a stack of newspapers tucked beside the chimney, and stairs leading down to the landlady’s rooms. Lighting (Mark Shelton) adds gloomy shadows, and two musicians (Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim) perched in a box of the dilapidated Harvey Theater supply aural color with a mix of instruments that provide accents and a Mussorgsky-inspired soundtrack for Rush’s virtuosic stagework.
Early on Poprishchin recounts having been in town when his boss’s carriage pulled up to the curb, a footman opened the door, and out fluttered a girl “like a peacock, a white peacock, a dove.” It’s the boss’s daughter (Yael Stone in one of her three female roles) and he falls hopelessly in love, though as a lowly clerk he has no chance of being noticed by her. Madness begins to get a hold of him. He hallucinates that dogs are speaking in human language and writing to one another about the girls’ affair with a handsome young general. As his psychosis deepens, he stops going to work and comes to believe that he is the king of Spain. “How could I have thought I was a clerk” he wonders. (Oddly enough, Rush looks a bit like Philip IV.) The boarding house maid (Stone, again) urges him to come to his senses, but he is too far gone. When the men in white coats arrive he takes them for a delegation from Madrid come to escort him to Spain.
By now the amusing antics of the first act no longer seem so funny. In the asylum he winds up head-shaved and shirtless, prattling on about the strange customs of the Spanish court, imagining the abuse he suffers as a test of his worthiness to rule, and wondering if he has made a mistake and fallen into the hands of the Inquisition. His fellow inmate, a madwoman he addresses as Doña Maria (Stone, again), would be right at home in a Goya painting, crouching fearfully on the floor and screeching. Poprishchin winds up a contorted wreck, flopping around in long underpants and gazing into oblivion.
Given the tragic conclusion, I wondered if the first act was not a bit too comical. Armfield believes the early clowning makes the later suffering more intense, but for me the leap from the farcical to the tragic – the gap between slapstick shtick and heartbreaking desolation — was too great.
(A reverse trajectory similarly marred the 2010 Broadway production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. That parlor drama exposes human brutality through a gradual stripping away of the veneer of civilized behavior, but after a naturalistic first act, a string of antic projection vomiting, hurling of flower vases, and other incongruous pratfalls made a mockery of the play’s inherent gravity.)
Nabokov wrote that Gogol “pottered on the brink of his private abyss.” The dramatic arc of Diary of a Madman is a step-by-step approach to that brink. The breakdown of the Wozzeck-like protagonist, driven mad by social circumstance, unrequited love and possibly schizophrenia, is moreover an implicit critique of the reactionary and censorious regime of tsar Nicholas I, during whose reign the story was written. The stage adaptation (David Holman) incorporates the language of the original, but Armfield and Rush choose to explore its comic potential. To have done otherwise would have made for a heavier and less entertaining evening. Maybe that’s not Rush’s style. We may not depart deeply moved by the pathos of Porpishchin’s decline, nor seething about the injustices of a rigidly stratified and unforgiving society, but instead we thrill to having witnessed a genius entertainer command the stage with a bravura performance that makes the character, if not Gogol’s, wholly his own.
The Diary of a Madman, 130 minutes with intermission, BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, NY, closes, Mar 12, 2011