Arts / Fantasies of an unloved public servant

A HUMBLE government servant slaves away in the grey offices of the national capital, unacknowledged and unnoticed, yet he dreams of better things.

Could this be Canberra in 2018?

“It could,” says actor PJ Williams but in fact the character is Poprishchin, a low-ranking government servant within the 19th century Czarist bureaucracy, made immortal by the Great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol in the 1835 short story “Diary of a Madman”.

Now in David Holman’s staged adaptation of the story, Williams gets to play the role of a lifetime.

Since arriving in Canberra about 16 years ago, he’s been associated with around a dozen productions at The Street, as an actor, director or lighting designer, but this role is far and away the most challenging.

He doesn’t have to do it all alone, though, as performer Lily Constantine will appear alongside him in the female roles, Tuovi, Sofi and Tatiana.

Williams first proposed “Diary of a Madman” to Street director Caroline Stacey about eight years ago, but their plans were gazumped by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, for whom Holman had originally done the adaptation and who were planning a 20th anniversary production at Belvoir Theatre.

The Street has decided that now is the perfect time to do a play that is so perfectly suited to Canberra.

“We were doing the analytics the other day and we noticed so many parallels between St Petersburg and Canberra – they’re both cities planned to house the bureaucrats of the nation, they both have brutalist architecture sitting alongside classical architecture…the tension between individuals and their roles in the public service is also parallel,” Williams says.

Stacey and set designer Imogen Keen have not altogether abandoned Gogol’s original setting, and Williams says that Keen has worked “in the Czarist tradition, delivering a filter with overtones of 1980s Russia and Canberra”.

Is it a comedy or a tragedy?

“I think it’s a ‘dramedy’,” Williams says.

“It’s got a lot of physical comedy in it and the best way of pointing out the tragic nature of society is through comedy and satire.”

Gogol did it in the short story and even more famously in his hilarious stage play “The Government Inspector”, which pokes fun at the fear of bureaucracy.

So wherein lies the madness of the character? In his dreams Poprishchin feels himself to be heir to the King of Spain, but you can hardly blame him for fantasising a bit and, anyway, his dreams are pretty much what everybody dreams of – power, money and the love of a woman – in this case his boss’s daughter, who is “completely outside of his realm”.

“It’s one of the great questions about the piece,” Williams says.

“Is it the system that drives him to madness to escape into a world of fantasy?”

His “descent” into escapism is the face of such grim, brutal realities that it could also be regarded as an “ascent” into a world where his dreams are realised.

He’s never been a diarist or a journal keeper, but Williams has embarked on a madman’s diary-blog of his own for the duration of the production (via thestreet.org), which he describes as “an interesting way of giving readers an insight into the process”.

When we talk, he’s up to entry number three.

“I have wanted to do Poprishchin for a long time, but be careful what you wish for – it’s an enormous role full of great challenges,” he says.

“For an actor to take a character from such a classic and such an important part of Russian literature is an honour…Now the pressure is on to make it work.”

“Diary of a Madman” at The Street Theatre, June 2-16. Bookings to thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223.

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