Geoffrey Rush took home the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA this year for The King’s Speech and came close to an Oscar as well. Ultimately, it’s probably fair to say that the Australian film and theater star was up for these awards because of his big-screen break, 1996’s Shine, which netted him an Academy Award for his role as a mentally ill pianist. At the time, many (at least outside Australia) wondered where this rough, sad-faced fellow had come from.
As it turns out, Rush got the role in Shine because of another portrayal of mental illness: as the frustrated clerk Poprishchin in an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s groundbreaking 1835 short story “Diary of a Madman.” In December 2010, Rush and director Neil Armfield revived the production, as Armfield’s swan song as artistic director of Sydney’s Belvoir Theater. They have brought it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a monthlong run.
Rush doesn’t always play men pushed to the extreme, but there’s always at least a slight edge to his characters, even to a likable family man like The King’s Speech‘s Lionel Logue. Rush is one of those “dangerous” actors almost guaranteed to take you somewhere faintly nerve-wracking; yet at the same time he expresses a perpetual warmth that makes you root for him. All the more terrible, then, is the descent into insanity he portrays so antically in Madman, even more so because for the bulk of the play his Poprishchin is such delightful company.
Photo by Heidrun Lohr
So is Tuovi, the housekeeper, the largest of three supporting roles played with extravagant ardour by the wonderful Yael Stone. As the lights come up on Catherine Martin’s lurid, angular set, Tuovi is washing the floor of our antihero’s attic apartment. The character, a bare mention in the short story, has here been developed into an important foil for our clerk, who would otherwise be addressing the audience directly without a break. She’s also a funny and poignant creation in her own right, a voluble immigrant from Finland who gets the occasional grudging Russian lesson from Poprishchin while trying so hard, loudly but incomprehensibly, to be helpful and friendly.
A quintessential outsider struggling to make her way in a new world, Tuovi is the inverse of Poprishchin, who is officially an insider—a ninth-level paper-pushing bureaucrat who sharpens his boss’s quills and even has access to his grand home, yet suffers only further alienation for all that. It’s the curse of the famously stultifying bureaucracy of 19th-century czarist Russia.
Hopelessly infatuated with the bureau chief’s unattainable daughter, mocked by his co-workers, envious of his superiors, Poprishchin is on a downward spiral. Gogol gives us little if any indication of the man’s appearance, other than his shabby, out-of-style clothes (clothes play an even more important role in Gogol’s equally famous story “The Overcoat”). Like Kafka’s faceless lost men—and without Gogol it’s hard to imagine a Kafka having arisen—the clerk could be anybody you see walking down the street. But Rush’s version is explicitly clownish, flamboyant, an absurd fop with tufts of straw-like red hair and a penchant for acrobatic poses.
He leaps about the furniture, narrates the day’s events with exaggerated gestures and brisk onomatopoeia, and gleefully breaks the fourth wall and even a fifth as he banters in sound with the two onstage musicians (the sharp-witted Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim). He plays the effects of schizophrenia for laughs in a way that would get funny looks in the context of a modern-day story, tickling the audience no end as he studies what he believes to be letters from his beloved’s dog to a canine friend, looking for clues to the lady’s disposition. He’s already so delusional that he not only believes dogs can speak and write, he spins out in his mind their detailed, opinionated missives, even getting angry at them for their preoccupation with trivial matters like their food.
It is, however, in the dogs’ correspondence that he discovers the boss’s daughter’s new and deepening relationship with an eligible young bachelor with a position at court. Pushed over the edge, Poprishchin descends into obsessions, losing touch with reality even further and deciding he is the King of Spain. His days of freedom are numbered.
At that time the disease we know as schizophrenia was perhaps worse than a death sentence. With no treatment available, the sick were shoved into asylums where they were beaten and abused and left to live our their days in the throes of their delusions, however violent or painful. Ms. Stone’s final role stuns us, as a fellow patient who can do no more than scream in terror.
This isn’t the Diary of a Madman I expected; it’s much expanded from the source material, embellished, and funny. For the first three-quarters, the laughs really don’t stop. It’s altogether a wonderfully engaging night in the theater, centered on a harlequin-esque, tour de force performance by the star. Rush, now pushing 60, is a marvel of heat and agility and a master of the big gesture and the inclusive performance. He grabs us and for two hours doesn’t let us go.
As adapted by playwright David Holman, with assistance from Armfield and Rush, the story also flows differently than Gogol’s original; while not fundamentally a happy man, this Poprishchin is a delightful companion for us until near the end, so that his ultimate, crippling delusion and incarceration come as a much bigger shock. In fact, in terms of dramatic flow, the fall feels too sudden.
But if that’s the price of seeing Geoffrey Rush in a role he was made for, in a spectacular production, it’s a very small one. Coincidentally (for New York audiences), the show parallels another, more recent adaptation of a Russian literary classic. The Yale Rep’s Notes from Underground, which played here in 2010, also gave us an alienated character and a bravura performance by a superb male actor (Bill Camp) assisted by one female secondary actor and onstage musicians. But that excellent show was relentlessly grim. This, for the most part, is the opposite. A few tickets may be left; call 718.636.4100 or visit the BAM box office.