Mental health has always been something of a taboo subject. But it is put under the spotlight in this latest production based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol, which is considered one of the 19th-century Russian writer’s greatest pieces of work. Written in the first person, Diary Of A Madman follows a diary entry format and centres on the life of a minor civil servant during the oppressive era of Nicholas I in 1830s Russia.
Poprishchin, who in his 40s, yearns to be noticed by a beautiful woman, the daughter of a senior official, with whom he has fallen in love.
His diary records his gradual slide into insanity. As his madness deepens, he begins to suspect two dogs of having a love affair and believes he has discovered letters sent between them. Finally, he begins to believe himself to be the heir to the throne of Spain. When he is hauled off and maltreated in the asylum, the madman believes he is taking part in a strange coronation to the Spanish throne.
Robert Bowman takes on the challenging role of Poprishchin in this latest production of the one-man play, which ends its short run at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff tonight. He perfectly encapsulates a range of emotions as we watch him unravel before our eyes and head deeper and deeper into a fantasy world.
Despite the harrowing subject, the script is peppered with dark humour as Poprishchin attempts to woo the girl and later convinces himself he’s going to be crowned the King of Spain. He even makes his own cloak for the occasion.
Directed by Olivier Award nominee Sinéad Rushe, who relies on minimal props, occasional background music and some clever lighting to heighten the atmosphere, the whole action in Diary Of A Madman unfolds in just over an hour, which is the perfect length for a one-man show dealing with this subject matter.
While it may now be almost 200 years old, the story, which will resonate with so many, remains timeless. Harrowing but gripping stuff.