Nikolai Gogol’s short story, formed of a series of diary entries, charts the descent into madness of an ordinary civil servant, whose observations on the power-holders within his experience appear to be the catalyst for his fall. In this new adaptation by Living Pictures Productions, Robert Bowman delivers a riveting performance as Poprishchin which rarely pauses for breath. Though the character complains that theatre critics only look to tear things to pieces, Bowman himself should have nothing to fear.
Bowman’s development of his character is sensitively portrayed and makes his ultimate confusion deeply affecting
Establishing his character by means of some hilariously contorted expressions, and pauses which are slightly too long for comfort, the actor soon warms to his well-oiled delivery. He is so absorbed in recounting his tales that for a moment it is dubious whether we, being addressed directly, are actually truly present or whether Poprishchin is already speaking to an alternative version of himself. Key moments of Gogol’s text are underlined by the sensitive direction of Sinéad Rushe by means of intermittent musical cues and physical marks on the stage, which eventually work their way onto Bowman’s body and are each symbolic of a particular moment or memory.
The piece may well be read as a criticism of people in higher authority and of the detrimental impact the trickle-down of their decisions have on the people beneath. Poprischin ruminates bitterly that they will sweep away any potential crumbs of happiness that find their way to the lower classes. Our disposition towards sharing the character’s views is greatly improved through our continual delight in his endearing mannerisms and Bowman’s delightfully executed comic timing. Accordingly, we will on our protagonist to achieve his overly ambitious love designs, which maintain a sense of impossibility no matter how much we want them to be true. In this respect, Gogol’s satire is made to appear all too regrettably accurate.
The staging itself limits Poprishchin to a relatively confined space within which to operate, but it doubles as a visual manifestation of his state of mind as pieces of decking are upturned and removed, before the structure in its entirety is ripped apart and reconfigured in accordance with the climax of the character’s despair. Having taken such care with his audience throughout, Bowman’s development of his character is sensitively portrayed and makes his ultimate confusion deeply affecting.
Some of the captivating power of Gogol’s monologue is perhaps reduced in a section where Poprishchin joins the audience. However, these appeals to an audience on the same level suggests that, in some way, we might share a common ground with him, or be at risk of the whims and excesses of the higher authorities – even if to do so might eventually drive us to madness.
A deeply thought-provoking show.