To write a paragraph, or two, or three about the brilliance of Geoffrey Rush would not be waxing poetic, it would be waxing reality. If this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony was the Belmont Stakes, then Rush would be a shoo-in. After all, he has already won an actor’s Triple Crown (an Academy Award, a Tony Award and an Emmy Award) as well as two Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild Awards. I first saw the Australian actor and film producer in Shakespeare in Love, but it was not until I saw him playing the Marquis de Sade in Quills that I truly began to appreciate his ability be consumed by a role as well as his talent to portray a crackpot convincingly.
Although much of the media attention surrounding Rush at this time is dedicated to whether or not he will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for The King’s Speech, this award season has been a very demanding one considering he is also starring in BAM’s US premiere of the Belvoir St Theatre’s The Diary of a Madman, directed by Neil Armfield. This is not Rush or Armfield’s first descent into lunacy, both men know Poprischin (the protagonist) quite well. The Belvoir St Theatre is one of the most acclaimed companies in Austrailia. Company co-founder Neil Armfield directed Rush in the initial run of The Diary of a Madman 22 years ago, it seems felicitous that they would echo this classic as Armfield’s swansong as the company’s artistic director. But for me, It seems appropriate that a story concerning quills would once again allow me the opportunity to acknowledge Rush’s genius.
The Diary of a Madman is based on the 1835 short story by Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol. The story, written in first person format, focuses on Aksentii Poprischin, a low-ranking civil servant and chronicles his digression into delirium. Poprischin loathes his common status and despises the bureaucracy of St. Petersburg and his supervisor Mikhailov in particular. Despite his feelings for his boss, he is completely enamored with Mikhailov’s daughter Sophia. His yearning for her sends his imagination into the stratosphere as he believes he has overheard a conversation between Sophia’s dog Medji and another dog name Fifi. He spies on the two pooches in effort to learn more about Sophia. Eventually he convinces himself that he is to assume the throne of Spain and prepares for his coronation and move to Madrid, which is actually an asylum. Once inside the sanitarium, he believes the torture he receives to be some crude coronation ceremony, then part of the Inquisition. The heart of this tale is about a man who craves to rise above his proletariat status so desperately that his quest to shine drives him loco, a need that anyone who has ever swiped an employee badge can comprehend. David Holman, Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush’s adaptation of this story is a satirical masterpiece – dark comedy at its zenith.
Geoffrey Rush breathes an eccentric life into Poprischin that is nothing short of fabulous. As the Marquis de Sade, Rush was frantic to procure quills so he could author his erotic stories and express himself freely. As a lowly clerk of the 9th grade, Rush is hired to mend quills as part of his “spoke in the wheel” position. But after work, he is at liberty to dip his feather in the inkhorn and allow his lucubrations to manufacture a world where dogs conversed like humans, and his true disdain for the bourgeoisie could flow unbridled, scenes full of romance and royalty where he could prove that he was more than his position in society allowed him to be. Along with a two-piece band that provided whimsical and stark sound effects, Rush entwines comedy and tragedy exquisitely. As he blathers on about his aversion to Mikhailov, being ignored by his landlady and the ignorance of Tuovi, the landlady’s Finnish maid, the audience cannot help but to break out in side-splitting laughter. Another aborning truth that becomes clear is that as Poprischin Rush is the poster boy for “going postal.” Rush brings out the calamity of this character so well that as his shift into madness increases, it becomes harder to make light of his situation. Every chuckle at his delusions is accompanied with uncomfortableness as you acknowledge he is losing his mind. In the final scene, where Poprischin is confined and mistreated in the asylum, the audience receives the literal understanding of laughter through tears. As Rush fails to understand why he, the king, is being treated so harshly the heartstrings of everyone in the theater are pulled to capacity, but in that most dramatic moment, he makes an absurd comment that is meet with sheer amusement. Yael Stone is sensational as Tuovi, the Finnish maid, the apparition of Sophia and Tatiana, the shrieking cell mate of Poprischin after he is committed. She adds another wonderful comedic layer to this play.
My suggestion is that every New Yorker takes a queue from this incredible actor’s name and rush to go see The Diary of a Madman before it leaves BAM’s Harvey Theater on March 12. It is the Triple Crown of theatre going – engaging story, great acting and lots of emotion. Oscar or no Oscar for The Kings Speech, this production is an oration that you would be crazy to miss.
Photos: Stephanie Berger