DIARY OF A MADMAN
Diary of a Madman, Belvoir St Theatre, 8 December 2010-6 February 2011. Photos: Heidrun Lohr.
An intoxicating mixture of celebration and melancholy was in the air on opening night at Belvoir Street, and not simply because that’s what Diary of a Madman delivers. In 1989 Geoffrey Rush was a stick-skinny clown burning and overflowing with ideas, ambitions and theatrical talent. Neil Armfield was a quietly spoken, wicked elf with twinkling eyes as well as better concealed burning ambition and talent. Twenty-one years on they are much the same, the only visible difference is that Rush is now nicely filled out and decorated with ribs painted on his formerly skeletal torso. And the famously cadaverous long face occasionally – disconcertingly - suggests no less a presence than Ruth Cracknell. These days Rush is also an international movie star, of course, possibly with a second Oscar in March, and Armfield is leaving Belvoir – as its artistic director – having made the greatest and most sustained single contribution to the city (and country’s) theatre and opera life in recent times.
Along with dozens of Belvoir luminaries, Lydia Miller was in the audience (she being the original Finnish maid Tuovi in the tale of a ninth grade clerk in czarist Russia and his disappointing life). In the two decades since she washed Poprishchin’s floor, faithfully brought his soup and bore the brunt of his ill humour and jokes, she has been involved in every aspect of Indigenous theatre making and is now Executive Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts at the Australia Council. On the OzCo website she says in her bio page of her early days: “I was just a young actress, a very green actress, probably about twenty-three and it was the first National Black Playwrights’ Conference. We were in the company of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Brian Syron, Bob Maza, Justine Saunders, Jack Davis, Maureen Watson, Jimmy Everett and Kevin Gilbert and others … We did everything that had to be done: administration, lobbying, marketing, performing and in doing it, we became slicker and faster. We wanted change and we went after it…
“In my life I’ve had very, very good tutelage about art and culture and place. And what it achieves. I see it as a legacy: an absolute cultural legacy. I’ve learnt that creativity creates a space that enables people to tell their stories: to draw out their epic, grand narratives and begin the conversations that we have to have. Every generation will have its own priorities, its own conversations.“As an adult, I feel no different to that young person of twenty-three. No different at all.”
She’s not actually talking about Rush and Armfield, or necessarily any of the others among the troupes of performers and creative talents that have come, gone, stayed, prospered or been lost in 20-some years, but she could be. And she could be speaking specifically about Belvoir Street and its place in the city’s cultural life, as well as her own work in Indigenous performing arts. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What is definitely the same is the strength of the play, from Nikolai Gogol, adapted by David Holman with Armfield and Rush. It’s essentially a monologue-for-virtuoso although Poprishchin’s inner life, and his increasingly delusional state as he frantically squirms to escape hopelessness, means there are parallel universes at every turn. His only link with reality – not that he knows or accepts it – is Tuovi, the peasant maid (Yael Stone). She is from Finland and cares for him no matter what. Naturally this makes her the butt of his every mean joke and impulse. If there were flies in his leaking, freezing, gloomy garret he would pull off their wings. The Russian Revolution was just around the corner.
Poprishchin, however, was both the reason why the Revolution happened and why it failed: vicious, social climbing snobbery and pitiful anger fuels every waking moment. He lives for the hard-won privilege of sharpening the Director’s quills, of sharing the man-to-man intimacies of “Good morning, sir,” and the disinterested nod that is the savoured response. And Poprishchin yearns for glimpses of the Director’s daughter Sophia (Stone), in the certain knowledge that she loves him and doesn’t notice that he follows her about town. Delusion and ambition are everything to Poprishchin and the toxic mixture is catastrophic. He is slowly crushed to mental combustion point by the most implacably indifferent bureaucracy the world has ever known.
Diary of a Madman can be enjoyed on a number of levels: political theatre, social commentary, brilliant comedy or anguished portrait of a flawed and all too human being. As performed by Rush (and Stone), produced by Armfield with much of the original creative team, it’s also one of the most economically lavish entertainments we’ve seen since … last time.
For instance, while Poprishchin’s hideously comical descent into madness is chronicled in his diary, and out loud to us, his mental state is mirrored by music. Alan John’s score inhabits the clerk’s mind and, through its referencing of Mussorgsky, his life and times. It’s played live, by Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim, and actively engages the audience and performer in duet, counter-duet, mischief and exposition as it charts Poprishchin’s actual disintegration and imagined rise to greatness. It’s masterly.
Set designer Catherine Martin, costume designer Tess Schofield and lighting designer Mark Shelton also contribute their best work. Poprishchin’s ridiculous ambition and vanity are captured in an orange quiff and violent bouffant that wildly emphasise the truth of his balding dome. His garret, with sloping roof, pans on the floor to catch drips and dirty skylight, is painted gleaming, smeary, visceral blood red – he is in the belly of the beast, adrift in his own mind. Or it’s just a ghastly old rented dump in pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg, either way it’s very effective. It works well in conjunction with Shelton’s sharp and witty lighting, particularly the use of black-outs – coming faster and faster as Poprishchin goes raging into the night. Again, these are theatre people at the top of their game.
With the impending departure of Belvoir’s much-loved director, the presence of the global luminary and the history of the whole thing, Diary of a Madman has inevitably become “an event”. Nevertheless, although that means some bemused members of the audience (maybe not old enough to have seen it in 1989) who snooze for long stretches while wondering where Barbosa is, it doesn’t detract from a fine production. It’s theatrically and emotionally loaded with everything that might be on your wish list for a great night out: laughter, tears and a lot to mull over later. Thanks Neil, thanks Geoffrey – thanks everyone. Not to be missed.