Geoffrey Rush’s jaw-dropping performance in Neil Armfield’s dazzling production of “The Diary of a Madman” is even more astounding when you consider that the thesp is reprising a role that he originated more than 20 years ago. Riveting from beginning to end, this coup de theatre chronicles the futile yearnings and slow descent into madness of a lowly clerk slaving away in impoverished anonymity in Czarist Russia during the 1830s. No theatrical idiom is alien to Rush, who conquers this physically demanding and mentally punishing role by transforming himself from circus clown to tragic hero before our astonished eyes.
High-strung and bad-tempered when the play opens, Aksentii Poprishchin (Rush) is eking out an existence as a lowly office clerk and living like a rat in the unfurnished attic of a boarding house in St. Petersburg.
Catherine Martin’s impressionistic set design for this lonely room looks like a child’s garishly colored drawing of a bad dream: red brick walls, yellow planked floor, and a dripping skylight set into a steeply pitched green roof. The place is so dark and cavernous in Mark Shelton’s atmospheric lighting plan that the single candle in the room — which Poprishchin has wrested from the Finnish household servant, Tuovi (the versatile and valuable Yael Stone) — casts weird shadows on the walls.
Going against the naturalistic grain, costumer Tess Schofield has put Poprishchin in a too-tight suit and threadbare raincoat, both garments so severely distressed that he looks like a sad clown. Carrot-red hair and lurid eye makeup heighten the impression of someone who has already begun to detach himself from reality — helped along, no doubt, by the eerie music composed by Alan John and played on multiple instruments by two musicians in full audience view.
Rush — who originated the role at the Belvoir St. Theater in Sydney, Australia, when Armfield was a.d. and the thesp was his pal — applies traditional clown skills to Poprishchin’s bitterly funny diatribes against his “enemies,” from the boss who criticizes him at work to the landlady who withholds dumplings from his soup. But the humiliations he faithfully records in his diary are only reflections of the soullessness of his demeaning work for the Russian bureaucracy.
The clerk also records his pathetic infatuation with the company director’s daughter, Sophia (Stone again), an obsession that has him stalking the girl (and her little dog) until his infatuation turns to full-blown mania.
Rush has such consummate control over Poprishchin’s mental deterioration that it’s impossible to tell when he begins to lose himself in the fantasies that in the beginning made his life bearable. What, exactly, pitches him into that psychotic breakdown — the conversations he has with Sophia’s dog? The doggy letters he retrieves from the animal’s litter box? His revelation that he’s the King of Spain?
Poprishchin doesn’t snap into madness, he slides into it, and the subtle brilliance of Rush’s performance is that we watch this descent into chaos without actually seeing it happen. But by the last unforgettable scene, when Poprishchin is confined to a lunatic asylum, Rush has shown us exactly what madness looks like.