The Diary of a Madman Brings Some Pleasing Derangement to BAM

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Stephanie Berger

Is Geoffrey Rush sane? Certainly, he has played any number of compos mentis characters, and nothing in his offstage, off-camera behavior hints at a deranged psyche. Yet in films such as Shine and Quills and in the recent Broadway run of Exit the King, he takes on crazed roles with such confidence and aplomb you have to doubt the balance of his mind.

His latest outing, as the titular character in Nikolai Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman, from Australia’s Belvoir theater, hardly suggests soundness. Playing a lowly government clerk descending into psychosis, Rush strides across the BAM stage with what seems suspiciously like a lunatic enjoyment of the part.

Wearing a wretched green suit and a wig that suggests an experiment with rancid henna, Rush plays Poprishchin, who returns each night to his moldering garret and scribbles away at his journal. Poprishchin’s job might drive anyone to distraction. He describes a typical day, saying, “I took each of the papers on the left-hand side of my desk and transferred them to the right-hand side of my desk. Then I reversed this procedure. At four o’clock, I left.”

It isn’t long before Poprishchin announces that he has unveiled a secret cache of correspondence between two lapdogs and begins to date his journal entries “43rd of April” or “Ruary-Feb the 349th.” Shortly after, he reveals himself as the uncrowned king of Spain and fashions a coronation robe from his one thin blanket.

As written, Gogol’s 1835 short story, his only extended work of first-person narration, is very much a one-man show, with a pleasing ambiguity as to the truth of the events Poprishchin describes. But in adapting it to the stage, Rush, writer David Holman, and director Neil Armfield have apparently decided that Poprishchin needs someone to talk to, and they’ve supplied her in the form of a Finnish servant girl, a figure who receives scant mention in the original.

Tuovi (Yael Stone, who also plays a bureaucrat’s daughter and a madwoman) attempts to tend to Poprishchin even as he succumbs to insanity. Perhaps these domestic scenes aim to humanize him; perhaps they’re intended to counterpoint to his delusions. In either case, they’re not especially necessary and make you wonder if Armfield, who prefers frequent scene changes, near-constant underscoring, and an almost hysterical tone, actually trusts the material.

He needn’t fret. Just try letting your gaze drift while Rush is onstage. An actor of unusual vigor and plasticity, he seems endowed with at least twice the usual number of facial expressions—though here he most often relies on sickly disgust and sallow glee. Rush is a wonderfully compelling orator, making even the most extreme of Poprishchin’s fantasies sound plausible. But he’s just as effective silent, like when he steers his body into a distressingly flexible jig.

Much of the piece is played as savage comedy, and yet in an abrupt tonal shift that mirrors Gogol’s original, Rush even manages to conjure great pathos once Poprishchin finds himself carted away to the cruel asylum he confuses with the Spanish court.

The play concludes sadly, but the performance I attended ended in joy. Barely had the house lights risen before the audience leapt to its feet, hailing Rush with wild applause. What else could they do? They were crazy for him.

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