Diary of a Madman

Nikolai Gogol, adapted by Christopher Strain

Literary and Philosophical Society Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

(2009)

Review by Gail-Nina Anderson

Gogol’s 1835 short story belongs to that typically Russian mode of writing where satire, farce and tragedy can co-exist without needing separate headings, and changes in tone are effected so smoothly that you can’t see the join. I suppose the only word that comes close to covering it would be “absurd” in that it shows a pattern of everyday existence in such a light as to strip it of all meaning, so that even the overtly mundane becomes inherently ridiculous. This, in its most oblique and controlled manner, is why Chekhov’s exquisitely melancholy dramas are (or should be) also funny. Gogol’s fiction confronts the issue in a more head-on manner, wheeling out a gallery of grotesques and misfits who, large as they are on the page, do cry out for face-to-face dramatic engagement.

Christopher Strain’s one-man show represents a phenomenally brave dash at this, a skirmish more than a play, in which a soundtrack, a couple of hospital screens and two doggy sock-puppets make up the actor’s entire repertoire of theatrical assistance as he leaps into the complexities of Gogol’s story. Needless to say, it’s not going to cover all the bases – even when reading it on the page, the odd footnote concerning the labyrinthine complexities of nineteenth century Russian bureaucracy comes in handy, so any stage production requires an audience to pick this up as it goes along. Limitations are simply part of the package in a small-budget show of this kind, which looks designed to happily fill a lunchtime slot at the Edinburgh Festival. That said, it fairly zipped along in a burst of energy which would be enviable in any dramatic enterprise.

I have always seen Gogol’s protagonist, the hapless Poprishchin, as moving slowly and almost deliberately from the thankless task of sharpening quills for his newly-ennobled boss into a world where his developing madness creates its own internal logic. Strain is notably younger that the 40ish Poprishchin, and made a virtue of this by flinging himself feverishly into an ever-steeper spiral of irrationality which carried the show along by its sheer impetus. His youth also highlighted the callow nature of our hero’s view of the world. While a middle-aged protagonist might have cut a more pathetic figure, this one was entirely believable when he made pratfalls, railed against his position and fell inappropriately in love without warning. Indeed, looking at the character in this light, he could have been one of Dickens’ comic clerks, barely an adult but wrapped in a sense of his own trivial importance. This Poprishchin was most effectively a young man who made mistakes, convincingly presented as someone whose gravitas could only exist in front of his looking-glass, where his control was never challenged by the unpredictability of real life.

As the descent into madness gains momentum, the challenge is obviously to retain the character first shown and yet to completely undermine his grasp on reality. If he’s just insane, we’ve lost him, which takes us nowhere. Strain’s bouncy, schoolboy energy translated surprisingly well into a creative kind of insanity, where flickering delusions of conspiracy (canine) gave way to all-enfolding delusions of grandeur (or to be more precise, of royalty) that still permitted his personality to remain distinctive. There were moments when the pace could have slowed, in order to (for example) make clearer such considerations as the unthinkingly insensitive treatment from those around him which pushes Popishchin closer to the edge. As it stands, his innate fragility only becomes apparent in retrospect – it is possible to read it in his puppyish ineptitude, but it helps if you know what you’re looking for. Once reality has broken down, however, there are a few heart-rending moments of tragic clarity where the compensatory regal fantasies fail to cut in and Popishchin is just a man in an asylum, subjected to therapy as meaningless as the world outside. Strain delved into this quite unerringly, crumpled into a chair and beaten down by incomprehensible routines that he struggled to translate into the comforting ropes of his delusion. As a young actor he has understandably taken a big bite and not entirely digested it all, but this Diary of a Madman shows a performer honing his craft, in tune with his (pretty difficult) material and entirely capable of engaging his audience. He’s blessed with an immensely expressive face that effectively became the screen on which Gogol’s psychodrama could unfold (and which I suspect will look pretty good on screen too.)