Axsenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, (played by David Bromley), is a low-ranking civil servant: a clerk. But in Poprishchin’s mind, he is royalty. He is the only onstage character in Diary of a Madman, Howard Colyer’s hour-long theatre adaptation of a short story by Ukranian/Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, currently playing at the Brockley Jack Theatre.
On appearance, the protagonist Poprishchin does not stand out: he is one of a multitude of grey clad pencil pushers, taking orders from a Director, working the daily grind. He is not rich, but he is smartly dressed. He is single, he loves a beautiful young woman, but his love is unrequited. He lives on his own, in a flat managed by a no-nonsense landlady.
Axsenty Ivanovich Poprishchin is not what he seems. It is only noticeable at first in the slight tremble of his hand, the nervous movement of his fingers, beautifully portrayed by Bromley and directed by Scott Le Crass. But gradually, Poprishchin’s condition is revealed. Minor ticks and eccentricities become delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thoughts and speech: key symptoms of schizophrenia.
As suggested by the title, Poprishchin’s story is written in diary entries, permitting the audience a window into his rather peculiar view of the world. With each new date in the diary, comes a new clue revealing Poprishchin’s mental state. David Bromley masterfully peels away Poprishchin’s calm, collected and orderly exterior to reveal a chaotic and deluded soul, hopping from one chair to another and draping himself in a curtain and crown (he is not a lowly clerk – he is the King, don’t you know!)
This transformation is mirrored perfectly by Bromley’s costume: a specially designed suit which, like Poprishchin, unfolds as his story is told. Scott Le Crass’s set and direction also epitomize schizophrenia’s growing hold on Poprishchin excellently. Colyer’s Diary of a madman is a play that, like its protagonist, evolves. A bland office and an ordered filing cabinet are revealed to be scenes of chaos, and what appears to be Poprishchin’s workplace is revealed to be his holding cell.
The language used in Colyer’s script effectively portrays how Poprishchin’s hold on reality slips. In the beginning, Poprishchin describes his employer as looking like a stork, but later he is convinced he hears two dogs conspiring about letters they send to each other. His diary entries begin with chronological dates, but morph into fabricated and fantastical dates, before losing all sense of time and order altogether.
This is a play about an individual’s descent into madness, brought to life by a brilliant trio of actor David Bromley, director Scott Le Crass, and author Howard Colyer. But what makes the play interesting is that Gogol’s protagonist defies the literary mould: he has a condition usually reserved for tormented Kings and high-status Ladies imprisoned in the attic. Rather than being ordinary, he is ‘extraordinary’, a term peppering Howard Colyer’s script. Through Poprishchin, Gogol portrays his contempt for government and bureaucracy, and allows this lowly civil servant to become a leader…at least in his own mind.
Review by Emma Slater
DIARY OF A MADMAN by Nikolai Gogol, adapted by Howard Colyer.
He is a clerk; he feels himself to be a great man; others do not; between this gap his madness grows. He becomes difficult in the office; he becomes difficult at home. And, at last, his imperial ambition drives him abroad to Deptford – strange to say. Gogol’s classic short story adapted for the stage and transported to London.
Cast: David Bromley
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
26th to 30th August 2014