Diary Of A Madman

Nikolai Gogol
Living Pictures
Sherman Cymru

Diary Of A Madman Credit: Kirsten McTernan

As audience members traipse into Living Pictures’ adaptation of Gogol’s tragicomic short story Diary Of A Madman, we are met with the sight of its world-weary hero, Poprishchin, lain on the arrangement of pallets which comprises the centrepiece of Sarah Beaton’s set, vaguely acknowledging our presence. Virtually from the moment he starts to address us it becomes clear that, however softly spoken he may be at first, he is a man on the edge.

Poprishchin is a minor civil servant in 1830s St Petersburg (mostly responsible for sharpening his superiors’ pencils), generally disregarded, and hopelessly infatuated with the daughter of his boss. As he relates his diary entries, the pressures engendered by his lowly status, frustrated sense of entitlement and romantic disappointment slowly start to tell.

Gogol’s story is regarded as a universally relevant satire on petty officialdom; as well as on lower middle-class pretensions. Perhaps problematically, it also presents a nervous breakdown as entertainment; Poprishchin’s mental collapse—he comes to imagine himself to be the King of Spain—is certainly more colourful and coherent than any we might encounter in real life.

The hero is seen as, to some extent, the author of his own misfortunes—prideful, lazy, and wilfully self-deluding in his insistence on his heritage as a noble. As Bowman plays him, he is more pitiable than ridiculous. The moment at which he confronts himself with the truth about his would-be lover’s disdain for him—via a letter written by her dog, which takes the form of a paper chain—is truly traumatic.

Under Sinead Rushe’s direction, the staging is imaginative; the pallets conceal a variety of plot-advancing treasures, and when broken up towards the end of the piece, form a chillingly effective cell. The object of Poprishchin’s lust is represented by a Tinkerbell-style light-bulb. Roland Melia’s score and Tom Raybould’s sound design cleverly illustrate the protagonist’s deteriorating equlibirium, slowly mutating from ambient to discordant.

The pace sags a little towards the middle of the 70-minute monologue, as we wait for Poprishchin’s schizophrenia to make itself fully manifest. Bowman, however, is certainly an authoritative presence throughout, even as he embodies a fatal ineffectualness. There is much uneasy, guilty laughter to be had here. We don’t exactly like this “madman”, but we can certainly identify with him.

This production will be touring Wales, prior to taking up residence on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; details are available on the Living Pictures web site (www.livingpictures.org.uk).

Reviewer: Othniel Smith