As the private scribblings of a thousand angst-ridden teenagers will tell you, you don’t need to be completely balanced to write a diary. Yet in this solo performance of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, Diary of a Madman (1835), we learn that you need to maintain at least a little of your sanity to keep up the discipline.
Poprishchin the madman is spiralling away from reality. As he moves from low-ranking Russian civil servant to the self-crowned King of Spain, Poprishchin brings the subjectivity of a journal to a new level. Thus, this one-man retelling of Gogol’s short story becomes a dark and witty fable, warning us against the dangers of interpreting the world in an entirely individualistic manner.
What may seem like a simple, one-man performance is powered by an incredibly strong backstage chorus of people and ideas. Director Sinéad Rushe, who was nominated for an Olivier award for last year’s Out of Time, prioritised the Michael Chekhov technique throughout the work’s development, a decision which clearly has a great influence over the resulting performance. This school of acting priorities a ‘psycho-physical’ approach and is heavily motivated by the impulses, gestures and imagination of the actors. In Robert Bowman, Rushe has found an actor who complements this method perfectly.
The use of such a dynamic technique allows Bowman to introduce new nuances to Poprishchin’s character, nuances which seem to exist in a complex opposition to the words he utters. For instance, against the mere irrationality of the textual Poprishchin, Bowman sculpts a paradoxically self-aware character who interacts brilliantly with his audience. Describing himself as a muddled man, Bowman as our civil servant delivers eccentric observations with a gripping energy, precision and urgency. His words come with a playful self-awareness; at one particularly involving point, Poprishchin recounts a trip to the theatre where he saw a play about a ‘Russian fool’. Sitting with us in the audience and patting the head of a unsuspecting man on the front row, Poprishchin delivers a description of a show that is meta-fictionally familiar and concludes, ‘I couldn’t stop laughing’. His cackles at this point are infectious and his rule-breaking interactions mark the piece with a gentle and relatable playfulness.
While it is a shame that this spirit of interactivity is lost as Poprishchin completely severs himself from society, Diary of a Madman largely maintains a dark and gripping mood that presents mental illness in a humorous yet sympathetic light. Diary-making and insanity are ultimately incompatible, but this production plots their process of separation well and, in showing Poprishchin in a king’s cloak formed from paper and a pencil, delivers a thrilling image of the simultaneously creative and destructive power of imagination and delusion. The King of Spain has been found at last and, our threadbare hero declares, ‘that king is me’.