Since early December, Australian actor Geoffrey Rush has been spewing, spitting, and sputtering his way through a production of The Diary of a Madman at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney—a production that will arrive at BAM on February 11. At the same time, he’s been in the center of an unexpectedly successful awards campaign for The King’s Speech, which co-stars Rush as the speech therapist Lionel Logue, who horse-whispers Colin Firth’s stuttering King George VI to thoroughbred elocution. To attend the various award shows and events (culminating February 27, at the Academy Awards, where he is nominated for Best Supporting Actor), Rush has been racking up an enviable number of frequent-flier miles via an unenviable series of 30-hour round-trip flights between Australia and the U.S. “I’ve just flown back from the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Santa Barbara,” says the 59-year-old actor, who essentially gained a day then lost it again for a scant few hours that included watching Christian Bale beat him for Best Supporting Actor. “My deep-tissue masseur is coming in a few minutes,” says Rush with an audible sigh. He is expected onstage in two hours.
This is Rush’s second time doing Madman, which is based on the satirical story by Nikolai Gogol and adapted by David Holman. As the dyspeptically perplexed “clerk of the ninth grade” Aksentii Poprishchin, he is playing the ultimate downtrodden lackey—one who launches into exponentially accelerating riffs on unjust bureaucratic entrapment and his unrequited love for his boss’s daughter. Before long, Poprishchin is—like Don Quixote or Walter Mitty—succumbing to delusions of grandeur and imagining himself the king of Spain.
The Diary of a Madman is remarkably current for a story written 175 years ago.
There’s some fairly high-powered comedy, some high-octane tragedy. That’s Gogol’s world. He wrote it in 1835, which probably makes him the first true modernist, because he was writing unashamedly about an anti-hero. As specific as it is to czarist St. Petersburg in the nineteenth century in the middle of one of the biggest, most mind-numbing bureaucracies ever, the contempt for power—it just reverberates so effortlessly with the world of blogging and people ranting their private thoughts and, you know, the minor details of their daily life. Since we first did it in 1989, it’s taken on that added kind of quality.
It’s true. At one point, Poprishchin rants that his boss “and a certain midwife are masterminding the enslavement of the entire world by Mohammedanism. It’s obvious. Look what’s already happening in France.” I can imagine reading a comment like that on a right-wing blog.
It’s that sort of free-form anger and frustration that lacks real information or real content. That’s what happens now with 24/7 news coverage; people pick up snippets, and they have to put together a mosaic of what the current world picture is. It’s hard to get a sense of depth, or a genuine response which is based on accuracy, or a sensible analysis of what’s going on. But the comic mileage you get out of that is fantastic. Poprishchin now would probably be writing for Bill Maher—he’d be a great gift to his show. That would be something else.
Poprishchin’s also a man anyone on the sitcom The Office could sympathize with, as in this line: “I took each of the papers on the left-hand side of my desk and transferred them—to the right-hand side of my desk. Then I reversed this procedure. At four o’clock I left.”
I can tell when the bureaucrats are in the house because that little moment gets laughs of recognition. And I love that! In a second you’re spanning a century and a half; you go, “Wow, here’s a valid, common, unshakable, ongoing human dilemma.”
Not to mention that this character is descended from a long, prestigious line of heroically deluded characters.
One of the most common questions I get in interviews about my films is that I tend to play crazy people, and that’s not necessarily true. But that dimension of, let’s say, theatrical madness, that exists in Cervantes or Shakespeare—putting characters into some sort of extremity—is one of dramatic constructs. You don’t want to be with them on an average day, you want to be with them on an abnormal day. Even in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—getting those characters drunk on a particular night raises the stakes very highly.
But Gogol wasn’t doing a case study on the psychology of an individual. He’s writing boldly and broadly about his culture and vocation. And about how the structure of society can absolutely isolate certain people who feel as though they’re lost—and yet they think that out there somewhere, alluringly, is this glittering, idealized world. It’s Gogol’s contempt for those who feel their lives could have been better without really knowing the dark truths of privilege.