Review: The Diary of a Madman

Geoffrey Rush goes magnificently gaga in this Gogol adaptation.

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  • Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

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Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

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Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Keeping a journal is an intensely private act that often resembles a public show: a performance of self for imaginary readers, out there somewhere in the dark and hanging on every word. Life may cast the diarists as extras, but in their books they are stars. This concept is taken to double extremes in The Diary of a Madman, a remarkable version of Nikolai Gogol's 1835 short story, which charts the growing insanity of a clerk named Aksentii Poprishchin. The period equivalent of a pencil pusher—he mends quills for a government minister—the St. Petersburg functionary winds up convinced that he is king of Spain. And there may be no actor better suited to his pathetic majesty than the superb Geoffrey Rush, who enacts Poprishchin's delusional grandiloquence with marvelous comic command.

Neil Armfield first directed Rush in The Diary of a Madman in 1989 (before the actor leapt to fame in Shine), and has revived it now as a goodbye kiss to Australia's Belvoir company, which he has run for the past 16 years. The soup-to-nuts performance holds up beautifully. On Catherine Martin's Van Gogh--hued set—with support from the gifted Yael Stone in several female roles, and a two-man band playing scribbles of music—Rush gives a star turn of rigorous charm. His Poprishchin begins as a dandified buffoon: A tuft of wild orange hair juts out from the top of his face, and his eyes are shadowed with turquoise. By the middle of the show, thanks to a dog's bite, he even has a clown's red nose; but like Gogol's story, The Diary of a Madman sets you up to laugh at a mental deterioration that is finally harrowing. And as Poprishchin spirals into chaos, Rush remains in total control. He treats his performance as the tour de force it is, and he takes you into his confidence.

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BAM Harvey Theater (see Off Broadway). By David Holman with Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush. Dir. Armfield. With Rush, Yael Stone. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.

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