Geoffrey Rush, currently an Oscar nominee for playing a serious, thoughtful character in The King’s Speech, lets loose with a comic tour de force in Belvoir Theatre’s revival of Diary of a Madman, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's short story that he first played in 1989 for Australian director Neil Armfield. The revived production is a swansong for Armfield, who is retiring as artistic director of Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney. Occupying the stage alone for most of the time, Rush plays Poprishchin, a minor clerk in a Russian bureaucracy circa the 1850s. Dressed by Tess Schoenfeld in period clothes—he wears a dark green velvet coat with breeches and a cravat, and sports a fringe of long, lifeless red hair—he looks like a Cruikshank engraving of a Dickens character. The top of his head is bald, except for an eruption of red in an isolated quiff at the front, and his dyspeptic volubility is rather like W.C. Fields on speed.
Poprishchin harbors feelings of superiority—he’s a gentleman, he continually points out to the Finnish servant (Yael Stone), Tuovi, who attends him but barely understands Russian. Like Rodney Dangerfield, Poprishchin gets no respect—the soup he’s fed is just broth, while a boarder downstairs who works for the Interior Ministry is fed dumplings. He badmouths his landlady as a former streetwalker, and while trying to assuage the feelings of poor Tuovi that Finns are good, he mutters, “Lapland barbarians who converse mainly with reindeer.”
The character takes on the appearance of a old-time vaudevillian under Mark Shelton's sometimes harsh footlighting—and his turn is brilliantly handled by Rush. There’s a bit of meta-theater as Poprishchin interacts with two musicians—Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim—who contribute choreographed sound effects of rain, horses’ hooves and writing with a quill pen—at the last, the violin saws dissonantly. “I don’t even know you!” he declares in exasperation when the music becomes intrusive to his story. Cutlan and Veltheim between them play saxophone, violin, guitar, clarinet and gongs.
The vaudevillian ethos extends to moments when Poprishchin interacts with the audience, as he asks someone to hold a cup of tea. But mostly he narrates his character’s diary, the story of a low-level bureaucrat whose menial job it is to provide sharpened quills for his superiors to write with. Poprishchin grumbles and grouses about the injustices done to him like a precursor of Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners and, like Walter Mitty, he constructs a fantasy life, in which he woos the boss’s daughter, the lovely Sophia (Stone), and he is rightfully rewarded. But he also becomes oddly delusional, convinced that two dogs of hers are exchanging love letters, which he tries to retrieve. Gradually, as his fantasies become more outlandish, he becomes the madman of the title, less a figure of foolishness than one of pity. In his final, most ruinous fantasy, he believes he’s the rightful king of Spain.
Guiding the audience through the comedy and the bitterness requires a range of emotions, and Rush moves from daffiness to dire straits with aplomb. Not just does he inflect the words and pause brilliantly (especially when he reads the dogs’ love letters), but he moves with a dancer’s grace—it is a surprisingly physical performance. Helping the mood changes, too, is superb lighting by Shelton, from sides, casting long shadows on the walls, to blue night streaming through the skylight, to crossing spotlights that impart a clownish, jack-in-the-box appearance to Poprishchin.
Gogol’s story may not be on your list of reading, but there can hardly be a better substitute than seeing it come alive in this riveting adaptation.