Diary of a Mad Man

A new adaptation based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol. Performed by award-winning actor, Robert Bowman and directed by Olivier Award nominee Sinéad Rushe.

Poprishchin is a low ranking civil servant for the Government, struggling to make his mark on life, but one day he makes an amazing discovery. Could he really be the next King of Spain?

Driven insane by government bureaucracy and hierarchy, Gogol’s dark comedy exposes one man’s reality spiralling deeper into a surreal fantasy world.

…Bowman perfectly encapsulates the madness as we watch him unravel before our eyes and head deeper into a fantasy world – Western Mail

Tickets: £12/£10

Age 12+

Running time: 1 hour

 

I saw performed at the Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on 4 November 2017. There are no allocated seats which is incredibly rare in established venues but the audience seems so small there is no reason to do so. It also meant we probably got the best experience possible.

The performer, Robert Bowman, starts the play lying still on top of some pallets with a pile of books in one corner and a bare bulb hanging from above. When you enter the door he remains there until everyone is seated slowly turning the piece of paper in his hand.

He starts off speaking so suddenly at the beginning you don’t catch what he says but he is clearer a few minutes later. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not as the room was silent when he began. It did however add to the character’s dissonance and lasts at most the first line or two before he is far clearer as if to instinctively put you at edge as you delve into the mindset of Poprishchin via his increasingly frantic diary entries.

It’s an hour-long monologue where he usually remains on the crate pallets, as if they were the limits of the stage, but will, surpring you the first time it occurs, leavve this space and explore the space including often entering the audience. At certain sections sit in the audience (when performing the section where Poprishchin is going to the theatre one evening), rush at the front row of chairs (during the character’s breakdown) while carrying scissors and go sit in the back row of seats and during the final section after which Poprishchin is taken to the asylum (which he thinks is Spain) so Bowman alters the staging by upturning the pallets to create the walls of the asylum cell where Poprishchin is being kept.

I was sat in the second row with the seats in front of me left empty though people had sat at the far side of the front row. Bowman took advantage of this by sitting in the vacant seats for the ‘at the theatre’ part. He did a gradually more and more forced, over the top, laugh as if the character Poprishchin has to force himself to pretend to be similar to the ordinary theatre goers by overreacting to the unseen performance. Then pointing at myself and others, as we were in second row, telling us to stop overreacting and, during the later ‘I’m the new King of Spain’ section, crashing into the front row seating and invading the back rows while carrying scissors menacingly later prior to the final asylum scenes.

There was a mix of ages attending on the evening but ultimately about only about 12 people came to see the performance. I found that surprising. You would expect more especially with the high praise Bowman has had for this piece year after year having received rave reviews in Edinbrugh, but I guess not… The R17 events did try to promote it but I guess this style of theatre is hard to market in this day where people want spectacle or quantity over quality…

You are meant to start off laughing with Poprishchin only for it to gradually become clear how badly he’s affected with an increasingly warped perception of the world around him. I can’t say anyone laughed out loud but that wasn’t the point… this is the downfall of a man alienated from the society around him and has that dark sort of tragi-comic style of humour that Russia is renowned for and finds itself in many ways reflected in the Welsh sense of humour also.

20171104_192745 the diary of a madman stage and actor before the start

Costume wise he wears a shabby striped dress shirt with a dirty t-shirt beneath, waistcoat and flat cap. During the later sections he removes his shirt and draws tally marks on himself with charcoal. Then a large number 8 on his chest when he thinks he is the new King of Spain. Towards the end he eventually composes, on stage, a cape from sheets of newspaper he straps together with masking tape when he dresses as the king of Spain. He does this all while ranting on stage. Quite impressive though I could see the tears in the paper. I wonder if it’s ever fallen apart of he has torn it too severely when putting it on. Well it’s all part of the spectacle leaving a great impact to see how far the character has fallen.

The stage is four pallets with alterations to hide certain items like the paper chain of dog’s correspondence letters or the paper he scrunched up as a hand puppet to represent the petty councillor confronting him at one point leading to a comedic scene of him conversing with a hand puppet as he mockingly recounts the event. In the final part he upturns the pallets to make the walls of the asylum cell. At one point, to represent the theatre, he opens up a book with a little pop-up theatre building, similar to a child’s pop-up book, then sat in the front row and began to laugh more and more hysterically which in-character showed how desperately out of step the character, yet desiring acceptance, even at this early stage when interacting with those around him (both as part of the play and when interacting with the audience).

A bare bulb hangs down and flares into a orangey pink light at times though there is also the lamp to one side and the stage lighting which intensifies starkly in later scenes creating long shadows across the space. He uses a bulldog clip to hang papers and such on the bare bulb wire in earlier scenes and tears them down later on. The sound and lighting play an important part in establishing the scenes especially in the hellscape like experience of the asylum. In the production’s minimalist staging it helps to enforce the sense of isolation and terror he fears during the story’s progress.

Review: Very intense. I really enjoyed it. I dislike ‘audience interaction’ stuff but this wasn’t reliant on it as Bowman would carry on and adapt as needed so it was more about him making clear how disconnected the character was from society so in fact it really worked incredibly well. We probably had the best experience of it possible as he could crash into the seats and be sat in front of us so there was always that slight barrier but interaction nonetheless. The usher was sat on the chair at the end of the front row, nearest the door, so maybe, if the show sold out, that’s the chair he would take?

Bowman has mastered this piece and you will find other actors failing to match the intensity and pitiable nature of the character in other versions after seeing this. He maintains the intensity of Poprishchin’s alienation throughout with turns between humour and tragedy effortlessly. We see the division between Poprishchin’s public and private identity begin to erode exposed through his developing obsession with numbers, amongst other signs, as his duality of nature declines. The insanity grows in degrees gradually over time replacing the somewhat idiosyncratic normality of earlier scenes with the desperate distress of the comi-tragic ending.

It’s the sort of thing you expect to play at Chapter as it is the experimental arts venue of Cardiff while the Sherman is for more established performers and artistic pieces, The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama is music orientated, Wales Millennium Centre is for the ‘big ticket’ shows and the other venues in the city exist somewhere in between these extremes.

It’s the sort of thing you expect to be followed by a short after talk once it finishes really. But that’s it and off you go off into the bleak cold of night outside having seen an excellent performance that you’ll remember for years to come and compare other actors against.

It’s the sort of thing you should definitely go see at least once in your life time, whether you love theatre or not, as it is a brilliant experience. I would happily go see it again given the chance. Highly recommended.

It’s the sort of thing you should definitely go see!

Anton Chekhov’s ‘Предложение’ (a.k.a A Marriage Proposal / The Proposal)

Предложение (a.k.a ‘A Marriage Proposal‘ or ‘The Proposal‘) is a one act farce by Антон Павлович Чехов (Anton Pavlovich Chekhov), written somewhere between 1888 to 1889 and first performed in 1890. It is a fast paced play of dialogue based action and situational humour. Usually it is performed in combination with other short pieces of Chekhov‘s such as Медведь: Шутка в одном действии (‘The Bear: A Joke in One Act’ or ‘The Boor’).

I was reminded of this piece by the marriage proposal story line featured in ITV’s Dr Thorne mini series which concluded last night. A turn of fortune changes the mind of the future groom’s mother regarding the marital appropriateness of Dr Thorne‘s niece and so there is a marriage and the mother in law is teased for her preoccupation with the families fortunes wishing for her son to marry for money and not love. This theme was prevalent during the nineteenth century with the most widely recognised examples being in the novels ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1813) and ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847 – albeit in the latter part of the novel which is often omitted in adaptions).

Dramatis personæ:

  • Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov, 54 years old, man (or 70 as he claims at one point to be ‘twice [Ivan’s] age at one point.
  • Natalia Stepanovna Chubukova, his daughter, 25 years old
  • Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov, 35 years old, a neighbour of Chubukov, a large and hearty, but very suspicious landowner

Plot:

Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov, a long time neighbor of Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov, has come to propose marriage to Chubukov’s 25-year-old daughter, Natalia. Stephan gives his permission and Natalia is invited into the room, while Stephan steps out, so Ivan may make his proposal to Natalia.

However instead they get into a disagreement about the ownership of the Oxen Meadows adjoining their properties which Ivan intended to gift her as a dowry. The passionate disagreement results in Ivan, a foppish hypochondriac, suffering supposed palpitations and a numbness in his leg. Stepan, rejoining them, notices this and he himself argues about the sort of bad people the Lomov family have been in the past and has Ivan leave his house. While Stepan rants about Lomov, he expresses his shock that “this fool dares to make you [Natalia] a proposal of marriage!” She immediately starts into hysterics, begging for her father to bring him back which he does immediately.

Natalia and Ivan get into a second argument, this time about the superiority of their respective hunting dogs, respectively Squeezer (who is unfit to be a hunting dog) and Guess (who is old and lame). Stepan gets involved and is close to losing his temper and makes this clear to Ivan. At this junction yet again, after accusing Stepan of being an intriguer amongst other things, foppish Ivan gets a case of vapors and collapses from his exhaustion over arguing . Thus Stepan and Natalia, after checking him, fear he is deceased. Stepan also begins to over react at the junction and Natalia cries over the sudden death brought on by the argument.

However, after a few minutes Ivan regains consciousness, and Stepan, insisting they leave him alone afterwards,  all but forces Ivan and his daughter Natalia to accept the marriage proposal with a kiss. Immediately following Ivan’s kiss on Natasha’s hand, the couple restarts their argument over the dogs and Stepan resigned tries to change the subject by calling for champagne to celebrate while decrying this is how they start their union.

The End.

Review:

This is a light hearted skit mocking the over sentimentalisation of marriage proposals alongside the etiquette and behaviour of the the middle classes.


At the start the participates formally address each other using the personal Christian/first name and the patronymic name (based on the name of the individual’s father) indicates how this is a serious proposal but quickly this falls into farce as the arguments arise between the individuals. The equivalent of Mr, Miss, Ms or Mrs were very uncommon and even today tend to be used more often regarding foreigners although it should also be noted the use of the patronymic today is reserved usually for formal occasions while it was more common in use during the past. Later in the piece all sense of etiquette is thrown out as the squabbling takes its place and even after order is restored the personal behaviour of the couple erupts once more over a trivial matter.


You may note how the men in the play are mirrored by the dogs. Ivan is Squeezer who is ‘overstrung’ and Stepan is Guesser who is ‘old and lame’. Natalia speaks dotingly of her dog Squeezer and perhaps this gives an indication of how her marriage will continue in which she will both argue and yet dot on her husband in the future (and it can easily be seen this is how it will go as such a pairing was very commonly portrayed in dramas of the time regarding married couples and you can see reflected in what would become a cliche in televised sitcoms from America focused on a central married couple even today).


If you saw an adaption without Chekhov‘s name attached and with a localised setting would you realise that this is the work a playwright from over a century ago? I doubt it. These character’s archetypes are universal and timeless. If you changed the names to a more local variant you can see them time and time again reflected in later works worldwide. A central male character, usually middle age or reaching it, who over reacts to events around him in situations he has no control over. A woman who is concerned regarding social matters and very argumentative with cutting comments directed towards her partner (which it is fair to comment is a sexist stereotype nowadays). An old man or woman, usually the parent of one of the more prominent characters, passing comment on events and mentioning the past both positively and negatively. These dramatic caricatures repeat as theirs is a simplistic truth pinpointing the faults of society and its nature to confuse the trivial with the sincere within the grander intentions of the people involved.


This is a simple piece and highly entertaining. As I noted earlier it is often performed accompanied by other short pieces by Chekhov and they offer views of society which still hold as true a view of society today as they did during their writing over a century ago. I would highly recommend seeing live performances as there is an energy there which is hard to replicate through recorded versions. I provide the audio book above, which is a fair simple audio performance, so you can experience the dialogue but nothing beats a live performance.


I often want to see adaptions of Chekhov’s works and they are apparently often repeated in repertoires but somehow never seem to be performed near me. I attended the performance of ‘August’, Anthony Hopkins‘ adaption of ‘Uncle Vanya’, when it was premiered at the New Theatre, Cardiff but since then it seems a far rarer thing in South Wales to see the works of Chekhov despite my every care and attention regarding the yearly repertoires in the performing arts of Wales.


People seem intimidated by the works of Russian writers – after all how often do we hear Tolstoy‘s Война и мир (War and Peace) being used as a synonym for ‘immensely long and difficult to read book’? This is due to Tolstoy‘s personal predilection of going into prolonged commentaries about society which pad the book up quite a bit and do not reflect Russian literature at all. The works of Dostoevsky are influenced by Dickens and read just as easily with a focus more on narrative than reflection. The works of Chekhov are expedient, in comparison to previous generations indulgences in the poetics of language, in how concise the dialogue is. The only limit seems, according to a Russian friend,  to be how the Russian productions of these works usually over sentimentalise them, which effects foreign productions perceptions of how to adapt them, when they can be produced in a far more relevant way to today’s audiences.


Yet with this said the BBC‘s recent near cinematic production of ‘War and Peace’ proves even Tolstoy can be translated in an easily understood adaption. Albeit, as is inevitable with many adaptions of literature, some of the aspects are lost for immediacy or because hearing the inner thoughts of a character is a difficult concept to translate without giving them long running monologues or a voice over which takes you out of the scene.


There is a stigma sadly but, once you have dipped your toe into the water and realise how absurd the prejudice is, there is a world of universally recognisable character archetypes in  Russian works.

‘August’ was also made into a film.
 For whatever reason WordPress is refusing to let me space the review part out properly so I used the ‘horizontal line’ tool to break it up and make it a little bit more easy and pleasing to read layout wise.