History Lovers Should ‘Rush’ to See “The Diary of a Madman”

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Diary of a Madman
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St.
New York, N.Y.

In the heavily praised film The King’s Speech, actor Geoffrey Rush plays the British monarch’s speech therapist in 1930s England.  In TheDiary of a Madman, just opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he plays the Russian tsar’s low-level, lonely clerk, pushing pencils and shuffling paper all day in a tedious life in 1830 that is pushing him to the brink of insanity.

The Diary of a Madman is a history play about the life of government clerks in bureaucracy laden St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia, five years after Tsar Nicholas I assumed power.  Rush gives the theatrical performance of a lifetime as the quirky clerk, Aksenti Poprishchin, capturing a hundred levels of his wobbly and rapidly deteriorating mind as he goes insane.

Poprishchin, 42, is the bored clerk who works for Mikhailov, whom he hates.  They both toil for a director, whom he likes.  He is a little bit in love with the director’s daughter, Sophia.

He works in one of the large, tall, stone office buildings that line the wide streets and harbor of St. Petersburg, by the 1830s already one of the world’s most beautiful cities and home to the tsar and his palaces (today they make up the Hermitage Museum).  Rush tells us a lot about life in St. Petersburg then—the rumbling of the horse drawn taxis, scenes of the tsar riding through town in his elegant carriage, the dazzling theaters, torches that light up the night, the sprawling social life of the rich, the dusty streets, the women’s fashion and the costly mansions of the wealthy.  He is a handsome clerk, well-dressed, with a brassy, buoyant personality.

But he is going mad.

You can tell there is something wrong with him right away. He pirouettes about the stage, unable to stay in one place for very long.  He dances and twirls as he goes up and down the stairs.  He makes great use of his arms and hands, waving them about and wagging his fingers in exquisite slow motion.  He does wonderful impressions of the people he hates at his office and moans about the boredom of his life.  “I take all the papers stacked up on the left of my desk and move them to the right of my desk, and then repeat the procedure.  I go home at 4 o’clock,” he says in a delightful scene.

Towards the end of Act One, he snaps and in wonderfully animated dialogue starts to tell the audience about conversations he hears between two dogs that he knows.  At the start of Act Two, he breaks into the home of one dog and retrieves papers that he claims are letters between the dogs and reads them aloud, inventing the letters as he goes on, giggling or fretting as he does so.

It is obvious that he is a very lonely man. He has no friends at the office and none in his personal life.  He is not married and has no girlfriend.  He walks about town alone and goes to the theater by himself.  He dismisses efforts of his newly arrived, Finnish housekeeper to befriend him.  He leads a life similar to the life of many people in the world today, working in a dull job.  He has no richness of spirit as many of the rest do, though, and no home life.  He is a prisoner of the nearly empty, disheveled rooftop room that he rents.

The most searing part of Rush’s performance is that he tries so hard to make you believe he is quite sane.  He calls himself a gentleman, dresses well, discusses St. Petersburg social life and gossips about women he knows.  Rush is a thin, wiry, unbelievably energetic man who prances about the stage for two hours, his character’s madness deepening as each minute flies by.  Finally, he begins to stay home and read everything he can about the controversy surrounding the succession of someone to the throne of Spain.  Suddenly, dressed in his underwear, he decides that he is the new King of Spain. From there, the clerk’s life spirals downward into an unbelievably frightening and very memorable finale to the play.

The play calls for a highly skilled actor.  Someone with fewer talents than Geoffrey Rush would fail in it, and badly.  Rush keeps up the intensity of his character’s woes throughout the entire play, ratcheting them up higher and higher as time goes by.  Historically, there was little psychiatric help for Russians, or anyone else, with mental illness in that era.  Today Poprishchin would be on anti-depressants and see a psychiatrist in an effort to cope with the world.  He might even get help from Dr. Phil.  There was none of that in 1830.  Rush is just marvelous.

The Diary of a Madman is a two-person play.  Yael Stone plays the housekeeper, with a hard to understand Finnish accent, and several other roles.  She is quite good and you keep hoping she can help the clerk, but she can’t.

Neil Armfield does a splendid job as the director.  He keeps Rush moving about as quickly as the story unfolds.  He maintains an air of intensity and sadness in the play, but at the same time keeps the audience wondering what tragic new event will happen next.

The play is based on a short story by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who wrote it in 1853, near the time of his clerk’s mental breakdown.  So the history in the play is by someone who knew Russia at that time, a big help to the audience.  David Hofman adapted the story into a play, with assistance from director Armfield and actor Rush.

History lovers might wish that Gogol put more contemporary history into his story.  Tsar Nicholas I, who claimed the throne under questionable circumstances when his older brother refused it, was a haughty, autocratic ruler who developed an ever-burgeoning system of bureaucrats to run Russia.  When he was installed as the emperor, there was a public protest by 3,000 soldiers.  He had the rest of the army put that down and, the next day, began a dictatorial reign to make certain there were no more demonstrations.  He quashed all efforts at any form of democratic government.  His years in power were marked by repressive laws against the rights of the people.

It is rare when one actor completely dominates a role as thoroughly as Geoffrey Rush.  Perhaps it is because he has starred in so many movies about history. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The King’s Speech, but he has also starred, and gained rave notices, for his work in the historic movies Shakespeare in Love, Munich, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and Les Miserables. He won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Shine.

He brings all of that historical skill into his riveting, mesmerizing performance in The Diary of a Madman. Anyone who sees it will love Rush and, if they are ever walking the streets of St. Petersburg, look up towards the roof apartments and shudder.

PRODUCTION: Producers, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Belvoir Theater (Australia). Sets: Catherine Martin, Costumes: Tess Schofield, Lighting: Mark Shelton, Sound: Paul Charlier, Music: Alan John, Paul Cutlan, Erkki Veltheim. Directed by Neil Armfield.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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