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Geoffrey Rush stars in Diary of a Madman at BAM

Geoffrey Rush and director Neil Armfield have been working together on their theatrical adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Diary of a Madman” for more than twenty years. As someone who was not of theatre-going age in the 80s, I can’t say how much the play has changed since its first performance at Australia’s Belvoir Theatre, which Armfield himself founded, but as this most recent production at BAM marks the venerable director’s swan song perhaps we can assume they’ve finally reached perfection?

If we’re speaking about Rush’s performance alone, I heartily agree. As Poprischin, a lowly clerk whose chief duties include filing His Excellency’s quills, Rush struts and strides with an elasticity heretofore seen only in John Cleese’s ‘Silly Walks.’ Sporting a bright red ‘do and green eyeshadow and dressed alternatively in a shabby green corduroy suit and a filthy red coat, he preens and primps and generally vamps it up for the audience, often engaging those seated in the first few rows by patting them on the head or asking them to hold his bowl of soup. Poprischin is a genuinely disagreeable man of older but indeterminate age. He mocks his colleagues, derides his work and then turns to mush around his boss’ daughter.

Yael Stone plays all the female roles, three in total, including Poprischin’s maid and later his roommie at the insane asylum. It’s a tall order for any actor, but Stone is indefatigable, matching Rush’s energy level, which is high to begin with, and sometimes even topping it. The result is a too-loud, overly enthusiastic performance that becomes tiresome quickly. The schtick of the Finnish maid earnestly trying to learn Russian by literally shouting words like bucket! nose! and foot! in a campy Russian accent is barely funny the first time.

Unfortunately, the play has other shortcomings as well, namely the story. Poprischin’s descent into madness is believable enough even if it is a bit clunky (He goes from neurotic to creepy to hearing dogs to thinking he’s the rightful heir to the Spanish throne), but after all the goofy antics and tidbits of weirdness subside, what does it all amount to? When Poprischin is taken to the insane asylum am I supposed to feel remorse? It actually feels like a fitting conclusion. Really, where else should he go? At this point his insanity has breached the quirky cuteness of the play’s beginning – he’s now certifiably mad. And truth be told, I didn’t like him from the start. He’s snide and envious, a constant complainer who blames the world for his bad job and his poverty. If you choose to view it as a man driven to the breaking point by so-called ‘polite society’ then you have some satire at work, but I don’t see it this way at all. Poprischin is a man torn apart by the inner workings of his own mind, not society, and as such “Diary of a Madman” doesn’t offer the easy conclusion of social commentary via satire. Instead we have a very well-acted series of skits of meanderings that turn gruesome but lead us nowhere.

“Diary of a Madman” runs until March 12, 2011 at BAM