Geoffrey Rush at BAM in Gogol's "Diary of a Madman"


On 26 February Saturday, Nancy and I saw the Belvoir production of "The Diary of a Madman" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, director Neil Armfield and his starring actor, Geoffrey Rush, along with David Holman, wrote this madcap, zany comedy.

It would be worth seeing this BAM production for the acting of Geoffrey Rush alone: he gives an uproariously funny, emotionally engaging, intensely vital, delightfully bizarre, devastatingly powerful, bravura performance as Aksentii Poprishchin, the civil service "clerk of the ninth grade" whose attempts to interpret and record his experience in St. Petersburg in the early 19th century become the diary of the title and the content of the play. Almost all of the two hours of the play are the musings and rantings of Aksentii--often set against a clever musical accompaniment ( or echo...or reprise...or almost Greek chorus his ejaculations), provided by two able musicians (Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim), always in view at the side of the theater. The only other characters in the play are three young women who briefly intrude into Aksentii's world: Tuovi (the Finnish maid in his lowly boarding house), Sophia (the daughter of the lofty director of his department, and his unrequited love interest), and Tatiana (who shares his world at the play's conclusion)--all effectively played by Yael Stone. (The early parts of her performance as the maid seemed stilted and forced; but, once the play was underway, somehow that seemed appropriately part of her character's style.) As Aksentii becomes progressively demoralized about the indignities of his job and the hopelessness of his place in life, his grip on reality becomes increasingly loose. His comic wit becomes delusional, and his view of himself increasingly grandiose. Along the way, he becomes uproariously involved with the conversations between two dogs he has over heard on the street, and ultimately with the written correspondence between the two animals. Of course, even in his delusions, the sadness and limitations of his reality intrudes, and the dogs' letters reveal to him the hopelessness of his love for Sophia.

The play is enormously funny and witty, while, almost without one noticing it, also deeply insightful. It reflects much of Gogol's traditional obsession with the tragic/comic lot of bureaucrats in Russia, and it is also a profound riff on a fundamental psychological mechanism and attitude. Nevertheless, the enjoyment and fun of the first act and a half, ultimately leave the story with nowhere to go. The excruciating, painful situations at the end of the play are powerful--and Rush plays them convincingly; but they just do not belong with the comedy of the rest of the production. As much as I like the first 3/4s of this play, I did not feel it worked in the end. Nevertheless, Geoffrey Rush's performance was totally fabulous.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely limited run--which is why I am rushing to get this abbreviated Culture Alert out to you on short notice. There are only these few performances left:

      Mar 1—5, 8, 9, 11, 12 at 7:30pm

      Mar 6 at 3pm

      Mar 12 at 2pm

      Mar 10 at 8pm (BAM Theater Gala)

Tickets are extremely scarce, and there are not enough for availability online. One needs to Call Ticket Services at 718.636.4100 for inquiries. One suggestion that I have is that you may wish to do what we did: so that we would be able to obtain seats for this wonderful production (as well as for BAM's production of Lear later this Spring, starring Derek Jacobi), we joined BAM! If you make a tax deductible contribution and join this wonderful organization on the Benefactor level or above, you get access to a supply of wonderful seats that are not released to the general public. So, if you want to see this amazing performance by Geoffrey Rush (one of the world's great actors currently on stage), this is the way to do it. And it opens the world of BAM's other great events to you as well. To do so, contact the membership department (I'd suggest by phone, as they will be able to arrange tickets for you at the same time)

   Phone: 718.636.4194

   Fax: 718.230.3338

Here is what director Neil Armfield writes in the program notes:

Tempting Fate

Ridiculous to think that more than 22 years have passed since Geoffrey and I tucked ourselves away under the Members Stand of the Sydney Showground, in the corner of a bar, on nylon carpet that stank of beer and cigarettes, and began work on this show that would in so many ways define our futures: five years later I would become Belvoir’s first artistic director; Scott Hicks would see Geoffrey in this role and cast him in Shine...

Most important, it was a show where as young artists we shut the doors of the rehearsal room (metaphorically, because it wasn’t a room and it didn’t have doors) and worked to please ourselves. We’d done David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles and a stack of great shows at Lighthouse (State Theatre Company) in Adelaide, but this was really the first time we felt without parents—that we were just doing a show from our own sense of play and love of Daffy Duck and outrageous theatrical gesture.

The thrilling thing was that we found that the more intense the clowning, the more intense the comedy, the more intense the experience of pain and alienation that was revealed in this heartbreakingly beautiful story. We pushed everything: Catherine Martin presented two set designs—one monochrome, the other in Van Gogh and fauvist clashes of red, green, and yellow; Tess Schofield pushed the theatricality of the clothes, streaking them with house paint that made them stand up on their own; Mark Shelton dramatically carved the space with light; Alan John pushed the musos to cheekily participate as far as they dared in the stage action.

It worked. Opening night at Belvoir Street was one of those unforgettable nights. In the foyer after I said to (then) General Manager Robyn Kershaw, "Let’s take it to St. Petersburg." She made it happen—two years later we were there.

I’ve often, over the years, said to Geoffrey "why don’t we revive Diary?" He’d say no—it was just tempting Fate. Maybe. But after we did Exit the King, I think he realized Poprishchin was his great clown. He missed him.

So we’re doing it. And, after 17 years running Belvoir, I can’t think of a better way to sign off.

—Neil Armfield


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