Gogol’s Diary of a Madman is written in first-person in diary-entry format. Each entry is a crystallization of Poprishchin’s mindset and charts his slow but sure descent into insanity. The internalized process of a man becoming increasingly despondent in response to reality, a man who finds his position in the world an emasculating one, is demonstrated in sporadic confessionals from Poprishchin himself. It creates for the reader both a strong and unsettling connection with insanity itself.
Al Smith’s adaptation eschews the diary-like quality of Gogol’s short story; no direct-to-audience monologues here. Moving the narrative from Russia to contemporary Scotland, Smith zooms out of the mad man’s mind and places him in the context of the rest of his family. The first scene is a hilarious conversation between 17-year-old daughter Sophie (Louise McMenemy) and her friend Mel (Lois Chimimba). Pop Sheeran (Liam Brennan), the Poprischin character, is the painter of the Forth Bridge. His work and homelife is disrupted when Matthew (Guy Clark), a young (and posh) English student, comes to analyse the new paint’s effectiveness. As Sophie becomes enamoured with Matthew, and Mavra Sheeran (Debora Arnott) does her best to ensure peace under one roof, Pop harkens back to a time of national pride, a time where he feels grounded in his roots.
Smith’s adaptation is evocative, cerebral, and very well crafted. Not only does it retain the episodic-like quality of a diary by having short, quick scenes, but the catapult to Scotland in a post-Brexit moment displays the blinding, if not intoxicating, qualities of deep-seeded nationalism. But it does so with empathy; it demonstrates one man’s desire to attain dignity and success by clinging on to broad nationalistic narratives, even when they are contradictory.
Its relationship with the source text brings inventive twists: Poprishchin’s belief that he can understand dogs is, in Smith’s version, a hilarious conversation between Pop and Greyfriar’s Bobby. Smith weaves into the narrative clear Scottish folklore and sometimes quite obvious imagery — the painting and re-painting of the Forth Bridge, layers of history and lineage — but does so with a sophistication and humour that enriches and contemporises the source material.
Director Christopher Haydon does well to keep the pacing steady yet calculated to reflect Pop’s rising insanity, and Rosanna Vize’s design is bold, with paint cans on the lighting rig and red stains on the floor. Brennan’s Pop is executed with empathy and complexity, and Chimimba’s Mel offers some brilliant comedic relief.
The relationship between Sophie and Matthew, however, seems underdeveloped. While both McMenemy and Clark deliver individually commendable performances, the chemistry between them isn’t apparent. It becomes a crack in the overall composition of the piece, as their infatuation should be an obvious and ever-increasing presence onstage and in Pop’s mind.
To erase the diary format is to make us, as a society, rethink madness as it relates to one man. Positioning Pop around his family, his nation, and his history, leaves us as audience to meditate on what makes a man mad. Smith’s Madman acutely and intelligently portrays how concepts of masculinity forge with nationalism to create a dangerous weight that can threaten the very structures they were built upon.