Sunday, June 10, 2018


Diary of a Madman. By Nikolai Gogol.Adapted for the stage by David Holman.

Directed by Caroline Stacey. Designed by Imogen Keen. Lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Sound by Seth Edwards-Ellis. Street Two. The Street Theatre. June 2-18. 2018

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

PJ Williams as Aksentii Porpishchin in Diary of a Madman. Photo: Shaelly Higgs

What struck me most at first about The Street Theatre’s absorbing production of David Holman’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman was its authentic starkness. In the intimacy of the theatre’s Street Two, Gogol’s  account of Aksentii Proprishchin’s descent into madness is set against the cold steel of scaffolding that supports Imogen Keen’s roughhewn wooden stairway to the dark recess of the troubled mind. Set almost two hundred years ago in Tsarist Russia, Diary of a Madman in Holman’s adaptation is poignantly real and disturbingly relevant. Poprishchin (PJ Williams) is a minor Grade 9 clerk in the bureaucratic Russian civil service. Afflicted by insecurity and tormented by an unrequited love for his department head’s glittering, fluttering daughter Sophia (Lily Constantine) Poprishchin descends into a realm of farcical imaginings, fuelled by his superior’s carping criticism.  Gradually, envy, frustration and futile longings give way to paranoia, delusion and madness. In spite, Poprishchin lashes out at his landlady, communication becomes unintelligible with Tuovi, the Finnish charlady, played with Scandinavian feistiness by Constantine, and his mind conjures talking dogs with a talent for letter-writing. Flashes of sanity create the alienating sense of bewilderment, before the final entry of April 43rd. 2000.  As the King of Spain, persecuted by the Inquisition, Poprishchin’s anachronistic delusions find him admitted to an asylum in a final, fateful affirmation of insanity.
PJ Williams as Poprishchin. Photo: Shelly Higgs
Director, Caroline Stacey’s production of Holman’s brittle adaptation of Gogol’s unrelenting investigation of one man’s decline into the chasm of confusion and madness is amongst the finest interpretations of the ravaging impact of mental ill health on the human condition. From the moment Williams clumsily stumbles onto the stage, we witness the ramblings of a man upon the precipice, victim of his own delusions, the sorry clown of society’s circus of cruelty. Williams gives a tour de force performance as Poprishchin. For two hours he staggers through the desperate travails of a man hurled headlong towards his own psychological destruction. What marks the brilliance of Williams’s performance is his character’s ordinariness. Williams’s Poprishchin personifies the unremarkable man as the tragic victim of his remarkable struggle to keep a grasp on reality. Victimized at work, traumatized by his infatuation with Constantine’s seductively played Sophia, plagued by the encroaching delusion of talking dogs, Poprishchin slides irrevocably towards the insane mutterings of a man crying for the solace of his mother . His journey heralds the fate of man more sinned against than sinning .  Williams’s poignant and powerfully nuanced depiction of the plight of the solitary soul is a plea for compassion and human kindness. It is remarkable that a short story written so long ago should still resonate with such relevance two hundred years later. It is why this is such an important production and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Lily Constantine as Tuovi. Phot: Shlly Higgs

Stacey’s creative team have reverently observed the theme and atmosphere of Gogol’s sombre tale. Keen’s setting is symbolically expressive. Niklas Pajanti’s lighting design is starkly evocative and Seth Edwards-Ellis provides a haunting, eerie and unsettling sound track, taunting in its tone and teasing in its delusion. Stacey has elicited excellent performances from Williams and Constantine, resulting in a wholly satisfying and unified production of Holman’s adaptation. The play is long and the demands on an audience’s concentration are great but The Street’s production of Diary of a Madman  is ultimately the finest local production that you are likely to see and one that will linger and haunt for a long time to come.