Review / The ‘madman’ has empathy and compassion

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PJ Williams, as Poprischin. Photo by Mike Jackson
I had seen this production of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”, adapted for the stage by David Holman, touted as a “black comedy” but it rises far above this categorisation; in fact, the laughs are few and far between, while the elements of empathy and compassion are paramount.

Here we have an ordinary Russian bloke struggling to rise above his 9th grade clerical classification and finally finding his escape in the wildest of delusions. Whether he is ninth from the top or ninth from the bottom of the Tsarist bureaucratic ladder, he is going nowhere, fast – until the King of Spain dies and someone has to take the throne.

Aksentii Poprischin comes from nowhere, gets a job in the Russian Civil Service sharpening his boss’s pens, shuffling papers from right to left and back again, and dreaming of what his life might be, if only justice were to be served.

He lives in the meanest of lodgings, is served by the least literate, but most sympathetic, of maids, fancies the most desirable, but least achievable, of aristocratic women, meticulously records his quotidian existence and longs for something better.

Who better to depict this simple soul than PJ Williams?

Williams gives us the most exhaustively committed, inventive and varied two hours I can remember ever having seen in a Canberra-based production; his emotional and physical scope seems boundless – from rampant delusion to the depths of disillusion.

To say that he is ably supported in three manifestations by Lily Constantine, with her linguistic skills and comic timing, would be to underrate her greatly. It is never easy, as a member of the audience, to identify how much the success of a production depends on the director  and how much on the actor’s talents and instinctual input, but Caroline Stacey has made a very good choice of her cast and creative team.

It is set on a stark industrial stairway to nowhere, designed by Imogen Keen for mountain goats, subtly lit by Niklas Pajani in the intimate Street 2 and with a delicate soundscape by Seth Edwards-Ellis. Poprischin’s costumes in the first half, suitably decrepit, were more  of 20th century vintage and less of 19th century Russian style and the gowns of the boss’s bewitching daughter were distinctly 21st century.

Gogol’s short stories and satirical plays – “The Nose”, “The Overcoat” and “The Government Inspector” – contributed mightily to the development of 19th century Russian literature and theatre; David Holman’s theatrical adaptation of “Diary” and Stacey’s production do this tradition proud.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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