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Stage adaptation of Gogol novel starts run at Plymouth's Drum

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 14, 2014

By Martin Freeman

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Mad Man, The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth, from Thursday to April 5.

Things are not what they seem in Mad Man. The title is a clue for starters. A lowly office worker fancies the boss’s daughter but by definition she is out of his league.

He has to accept that his desires are unspeakable until he overhears a conversation – between two dogs.

Disturbing only if you are not already disturbed, the experience will prove liberating. There is nothing now to keep him in his place.

Welcome to Chris Goode’s new adaptation of a classic story, Nikolai Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman.

This is a combination made in theatre heaven. The Russian writer’s work belies its early 19th-century origins by still being able to startle, confound, disturb and delight readers today.

Chris has a reputation for doing the same on stage. Keep Breathing (at the Drum in 2011) was the result of his Internet invitation to people all over the world to say anything they liked, on any subject they wished, provided it could be spoken in a single breath. In Monkey Bars (2012) he put children’s words into adults’ mouths. So when he says that “Mad Man is quite conventional” he is speaking relatively.

“It is a big shift from (my) more recent shows. It is much more a play with a story you follow from beginning to end... at first sight.”

Scratch the surface and some of the big themes that are “in the engine rooms” of his other work are there: questions of identity and existence. Perceptions and pre-conceptions are challenged.

In fact the challenge begins immediately. The title is perhaps not so reliable title after all: the Mad Man – office worker Poprishchin – is played by a woman in this TRP production. The part goes to Lucy Ellinson, who won acclaim as a fighter pilot turned office drudge steering a military drone in Grounded.

“It sort of destabilises (the play) from the start,” says Chris. “It is not something that is actively spoken about in the show. I am really interested in the sexual politics of Gogol. He had a very complex set of desires, which he talks about and does not talk about. He repressed quite a lot. Repression and anxiety and shame go right across his work. It adds electricity.”

But the outstanding feature of the Gogol original is that it is still outstanding 179 years after it was published. The story of a nobody striving for individuality and identity in an indifferent world and society chimes today as much as ever; arguably even more so as we are swamped by every other individual and their identity daily via social media.

Was Chris tempted to set Mad Man in the present, rather than between the two world wars?

“It is incredibly ahead of its time. It could have been set today but I think it works well in 1920s England.”

It fits with the view of individuality then, and the stories of Kafka and Woolf, reflecting that modernist feeling and where culture was at that time and the sense of fragmentation and everything horrific that had happened in the first world war.”

Plus the physical nature of an office of that period interests Chris.

“There are the desks, that literal sense of bureaucracy; the pen-pushing; paper falling out of files, and real material being circulated but not going anywhere.”

Plus, 90 years on from that period and apparently in the digital age, “our paperless offices have even more paper than ever”. Madness indeed.

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