Edinburgh Fringe Reviews: Diary of A Madman x 2

Nikolai Gogol’s literary classic is adapted in two very different shows for the Fringe but did either convince?

Feature by Rachel Bowles | 16 Aug 2016

Dostoevsky once famously claimed that we all come from Gogol’s overcoat, a fittingly pithy statement describing not only the Russo literary great’s influence on European literature, but perhaps more importantly, the master’s ingenious mapping of some of the most untenable parts of the human psyche.

Diary of A Madman, published in 1835, is widely credited as the first and most accurate and complete depiction of schizophrenia in literature. Deceptively simple and farcical, Gogol’s bleakly comic tale centres on Arksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, a lowly civil servant under Nicholas I, told through his increasingly unhinged journal entries.

Fresh from a hit run at the Gallic Avignon Festival and Guichet Montparnasse Theatre in Paris, French theatre company Compagnie des Perspectives translates its original adaptation Diary of A Madman  [★★★]  into English for Vive Le Fringe! at the French Institute. The play is painstakingly faithful to Gogol’s classic, with Antoine Robinet whom the French press have rightly dubbed as a talented young actor with impeccable comic timing. Robinet performs a one man show amongst a chaotic litany of papers, faithfully capturing the story’s essence by reproducing Gogol’s insular, epistolary descent into madness through one unreliable narrator's progressively more and more deranged and paranoid ramblings.

The devil is in the details and marks of Poprishchin’s diseased mind permeate the French Institute’s staging – well thumbed pages litter Poprishchin’s shabby apartment with a modest, messy desk, complete with huge literary tomes and a globe reflecting the intolerable tension between his inferior social station with the mind numbingly dull work it entails and his typically petit bourgeois aspirations of social mobility. The sound staging is wonderfully invasive, the noise of footsteps and creaking doors, the sound of society and the little rooms it is kept ticking over within, weigh heavily on Poprishchin’s delicate mind.

As Poprishchin becomes more delusional, we may question the veracity of his testimony – his ability to read a dog’s correspodence to another dog, his claim to the Spanish throne or the geopolitical dimensions of Spain really being China. The undeniable truth of Poprishchin’s stories is clear however, the bubbling subtext of cruel humiliations endured within Russian society’s oppressive class system. Poprishchin’s insanity, fragile masculinity and neurotic obsession with rank and prestige is a result of this environment, the Tsarist beauacracy for which he meaninglessly toils away at his desk before finally snapping.

The only real drawback to Compagnie des Perspective’s production then is frustratingly fixable, a language barrier. Robinet‘s thick French accent, though aurally pleasant and aptly comical at times, is perhaps too hard to discern for those unable to understand more than basic Franglais. Subtitles would be an easy solution.

Traverse’s adaptation is an altogether different beast – zealous and at times bitingly funny with up-to-the-minute pop culture references, Al Smith’s Diary of A Madman  [★★★]  is ultimately a rewrite too far. Its ambitious scope stretches Gogol’s source material rather thin with far too many half formed ideas thrown into the mix just to be dropped, undermining the strong comic and tragic performances of a hugely talented cast. I imagine a Ryan Murphy adaptation would not differ much from Smith’s.

Smith’s Diary of A Madman relocates the action to contemporary Scotland and latches onto the infamous myth of the Queensferry Forth Bridge being so huge that it is always being painted. Poprishchin then becomes Pop Sheeran (a brilliantly terse yet vulnerable Liam Brennan) a man whose family have for generations painted the bridge by hand. His quiet existence is disturbed by the presence of a voluntary apprentice, Matt White (Guy Clark, and yep, a paint joke!) a Harrow educated son of a Knight of the realm, slumming it for his engineering degree at the University of Edinburgh.

This affable if unremarkable young man poses a huge threat to the middle aged Pop. He is young and comparatively virile, an English invader of superior breeding and technology who is seduced by Pop’s teenage daughter Sophie (Louise McMenemy.) The latter is what tips Pop over the edge.

Pop takes Matt to the pub to have a gentlemanly talk about how he doesn’t mind Matt having sex with his daughter, just not under his roof as it would make Matt the man of the house because Pop is impotent due to meds he takes (sexual dysfunction can be a side effect from some medications used to treat mental illness.) Pop tells an old story, conjuring up Gothic Celtic lore, of the devil being in his blood through a cursed ancestor and his dark majesty needing to be dulled with prescription drugs. If this seems convoluted, confusing and downright unpleasant, it’s because it is.

The play’s first half hour is by far its strongest. Smith’s glib, witty one liners and sharp tongued humour are batted about with expert timing between the characters, often with hilarious deadpan aplomb. The script is at its best during the banter and antics of Sophie and her best friend Mel McCloud, Lois Chimiba pitch perfect as a facetious, bawdy teenager, or when negotiating the uneasy class tension between Pop and his elite apprentice.

Time and again, however, Smith’s play introduces complex, controversial topics and themes only to drop them, either never to be heard of again or worse, resolved through a disturbing, reactionary subtext. For example, the topic of mental illness being hereditary and the effect it has on children is a sensitive issue worthy of exploration. But when sympathetic Sophie challenges her mother on the morality of bringing perhaps another suffering, pitiful mind into the world, waiting one day for psychosis to shatter her normal mental functioning, it seems as if Diary is saying something very disturbing and albleist. Pop’s misogyny is conflated with his schizophrenia, rather than a direct result of his environment as in Gogol’s original, and his schizophrenia is conflated with the devil, something special, evil and dramatic rather than a misunderstood, unfortunate illness.

Diary falters in its gender politics too. The play itself is at best heteronormative – Mel asserts that a woman’s power is through her ability to complete a man via sex, “We are the king makers.” Debora Arnott’s character Mavra Sheeran is little more than an appeasing wife and mother and an object for Pop’s on/off libido. Matt has a dead mother who seems to only be mentioned so that Pop can, during his full Hollywood Braveheart hyper-masculine psychosis, mimic having sex with the “cunt.” Gasp!

Smith’s script aims for zeitgeist, and though a closer examination of Scottish Nationalism would be welcome, a broad confusion between Brexit xenophobia and Scottish independence is misguided.

Ultimately this version of Diary will entertain and move for its running time, Brennan’s dramatic take on psychosis via Braveheart will have eyes glued to him. Some of Smith’s updates from Gogol’s original, such as the letter writing dogs instead being a stuffed teddy version of Greyfriar’s Bobby are inspired. It’s unfortunate then that such a wealth of ideas ultimately comes to little more than regressive nonsense.

Diary of A Madman, The French Institute, until 28 Aug (not Mondays) 4pm £10 (8) Diary of A Madman, Traverse, until 28 Aug (no Mondays) Various Times. £12.50 (8.50)