Theater

The Trump Culture Center in Istanbul Just Staged “Diary of a Madman”

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The Trump Towers in Istanbul, two conjoined, rectangular skyscrapers with conspicuous juts of glass and stone, are reminiscent of the tactical robot TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in mid-stride.

Designed by Brigitte Webber Architects and located on the city’s European side, one of the buildings is an office block, the other hosts 200 residences, and situated between them is a shopping mall that sinks five stories into the ground. At the bottom lies the Trump Culture and Performance Centre. Last Thursday, as President Donald Trump held the White House press corps hostage in his deranged, euphuistic grip, I descended into the mall to witness a pathetic little man’s swift descent into paranoia, insanity, and, ultimately, doom — in a stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece, “Diary of a Madman.”

I didn’t quite know what to expect as I stepped out of the car. I had never been to this venue, nor to Trump Towers. The recent construction boom in Turkey has resulted in an infestation of shopping centers, and most Istanbul residents tend to socialize in their local malls.

“Trump It,” reads a giant electronic billboard over the small entrance to the mall. The colors and patterns change frequently on the enormous LED display, with every second advert seemingly in aid of the complex itself. Puns in Turkish playing around with the word Trump – a restaurant called Trumpet (which literally means “Trump Meat” in Turkish), the food court labelled Trump Street – compete for signage space with the logo of the mall that prominently bears the 45th U.S. President’s name. This sort of pointless self-advertising reassuring the patrons of their whereabouts is not unusual in other malls in Istanbul, either.

What is somewhat surprising is how unassuming the whole place is. The ceilings are low. The corridors are anything but bright. You won’t find many luxury brands among the stores here. No Gucci or Louis Vuitton; those are at Istinye Park, another shopping center a bit further to the northeast. Unlike the President’s tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the walls are not adorned with gold, real or otherwise. Nor has it become a meeting point for the city’s youth, who seem to prefer two other malls, Zorlu or Kanyon. Empty even for a Thursday evening, it is a modern-day, middle-aged, middle-class bazaar that could perhaps best be described as having “moved on,” Stephen King’s phrase for the world in which his post-apocalyptic series The Dark Tower is set.

Donald Trump’s involvement with “his” towers in Istanbul is not quite clear. He doesn’t own the property, and has allowed the Turkish owners of the entire complex, Dogan Holding, the use of his name for somewhere between $1 million and $5 million. The deal was supposed to have included a visit from him and his daughter Ivanka, and he was present for the grand opening in April 2012, when he commented that Turkey was being governed much better than the United States. Cut to this summer, when Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric inspired Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to suggest that the owners should think about re-naming the complex. This suggestion has not been repeated since November 8th, 2016.

The bottom floor where the Trump Culture and Performance Center is located is mostly taken up by an amusement arcade. Unlike the rest of the mall, it is brightly lit thanks to white fluorescent lamps across the ceiling. Weirdly, there is no lobby area to separate the air hockey tables and arcade games from the venue proper. Inside is a proscenium theatre that can hold around 500 people. The walls are covered in crimson felt, with large, grey, square tiles as decoration. It is, I’m sorry to report, not a glorious venue.

“Diary of a Madman” was originally adapted for the stage and performed by one of Turkey’s legendary actors, Genco Erkal, in 1965. Humphrey Searle had previously turned the short story into an opera in 1958, but Erkal’s version was the first time the novella was performed as a play – since then, there has been a number of different adaptations, but none has been regarded, internationally at least, as definitive.

Genco Erkal has been a thorn in the side of the establishment for decades thanks to his left-wing politics. His passport was confiscated by the authorities for almost a decade, and was refused leave to go on international tours. His insistence to adapt works by one of Turkey’s greatest poets, Nazim Hikmet, a Marxist-Leninist, probably played a not insignificant part.

Erkal has revised the play three times over his career, and most recently returned to the role last year to wide acclaim and great success. Certainly, it was surprising to see the play, starring Erkal in the title role, was almost sold out on a night when two Istanbul soccer teams were facing up against continental rivals in the Europa League.

Set during the repressive rule of Nikolai I, “Madman” is an epistolary short story in the form of diary entries of Poprishchin, a low-level civil servant, whose obsessions pave the way to his eventual incarceration in an insane asylum due to, well, madness. He becomes infatuated by his director’s sprightly daughter, Sofi, and believes he can understand the conversations between her dog and her friend’s canine companion. Poprishchin invades Sophie’s friend’s apartment and steals what he believes to be letters between the dogs. His entries get even more unsettling as he reads the letters, which eventually reveal that his boss and Sofi regard him as a ridiculous little man. This realization gives way to an obsession about the Spanish court, where disagreements regarding the rightful heir to the throne lead to anarchy in the streets. As he eventually proclaims himself the King of Spain, Poprishchin is interned in a mental institution, where he is beaten and his tearful pleas to his mother go unanswered.

Genco Erkal’s adaptation is a faithful one, though his interpretation of Poprishchin is perhaps a bit more comical than in Gogol’s story. Most of the play is set in the civil servant’s cramped apartment, with tatty old clothes strewn about on screens and cabinets, and an old bed in the center of the stage. Erkal’s generally affable demeanor gives way to paranoia fairly quickly, and it is rather disturbing how he almost starts speaking in tongues. It’s these unintelligible, unsettling utterances and the silent protestations under his breath that drive his soliloquies. He rants and raves, at one point dismissing the freedom of the press as nonsense, and then refusing to believe that there could possibly be a female monarch in Spain. “What nonsense,” he exclaims.

Poprishchin is a fascinating figure: he despises everyone but himself, and in his eyes everyone seems to be the enemy, from his colleagues at work to dogs whose letters he stole. Initially idolizing his boss, he soon comes to despise him, too, out of envy and a fairly large inferiority complex. More so than insanity, Erkal’s play is really about alienation, and in particular, a self-imposed exile from facts and society. If you think everyone else is wrong and you’re the only person who’s right, chances are, the real problem might lie with you. Sound familiar?

Still, it would be a stretch to suggest that the play is symbolic of what’s happening in US politics at the moment. But certain themes do seem to mirror, in a crooked way, current events. For one, seeing a Russian work in a Muslim majority country, at a venue named after Donald Trump, is funny in itself. As is the next play scheduled to be performed at the not-so-glorious Trump Culture and Performance Centre: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

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