Diary of a Madman / Orlai Production Office – FÜGE Production – József Katona Theatre – MASZK Association

There is order within the head of Poprishchin. Things begin to change when this order starts interacting with the chaos of the outside world. REVIEW BY TAMÁS JÁSZAY.

What is normal is, of course, unclear, or even if such a thing as normality exists, or – which is a lot more probable – everybody deviates to some degree from the invisible template of normality produced in a lab. Here we have for example this titular counsellor named Poprishchin who goes on and on about being a nobleman, and yet I see his wobbly trouser legs, his patched up coat, his stained vest, the cooking string in lieu of a belt, his trodden-down boots looking like a pair of gaping sea monsters. And the mouse hole from which he crawls every blasted morning to the glorious ministry to do the work he is best suited for, namely “cleaning up” his boss’s desk.

Tamás Keresztes
Tamás Keresztes

I cannot see him as a madman, no matter how hard I try, as his desires are rather mundane. Which one of us would not covet them? Throwing off the shackles, getting rid of trivial obligations, constructing a parallel reality in which I am the commander instead of the commandee, and so on. The performance is about this immense and hopeless desire for freedom. And it is about the moment you think you have managed to leave your cell only to find yourself in another room with bars. You might suddenly see the patterns on the wall from an entirely different angle, though…

The fact that Tamás Keresztes and Viktor Bodó worked together on the stage adaptation of Gogol’s almost 200 year old short story is hardly surprising in itself. The exploration of the thin frontier between down-to-earth realism and soaring surrealism suits the temperaments of both the actor and the director. An obvious parallel would be their legendary joint project, Rattledanddisappeared, which contemporized Kafka, and of course Kafkan madness also came out from Gogol’s Overcoat. This gargantuan one man show, however, uses a totally different dynamic, different energies. The usual (?) director-actor relationship also unravels here, as Keresztes designed the scenery and his costume himself, and he produces the impressively rich sound material of the performance in front of our ears and eyes. Due and in spite of all that, the trademarks of Bodó, that naturally grotesque quality is very much recognisable during the performance.

The space filled with unexpected secrets can create a claustrophobic impression and the feeling of infinity at the same time. It is as if Van Gogh’s famous painting of his room in Arles has finally gotten its long craved third dimension; although the walls are rickety, the paint has flaked off, the comfy bed is replaced with a dirty mattress, and a lonesome hazy mirror hangs on the wall instead of the portraits. It is Poprishchin’s imagination that redraws and expands the narrow, dark room, where objects come to life, where the sole source of light is capable of really surprising effects, and the robust walls of which Poprishchin can easily knock down with the help of his looper always at hand.

Photos by Róbert Révész
Photos by Róbert Révész

The music of the performance is composed, produced, recorded, played and distorted live, which is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time: the complex technology requires utmost humility and concentration from the actor. And this role yearned for Tamás Keresztes, and of course, vica versa, he yearned for this role. As if he was recording his story with ever more impossible twists, wading deeper and deeper into the madness that at first reaches only up to his ankles, but later strangles his throat. Which is not really madness in our terms: the text of Gogol construed of three different translations and performed almost in its entirety proceeds with tiny but very determined steps on a narrow plank, the other end of which is blurry at first, but leads onto the ice cold stone floor of a psychiatric ward.

Keresztes dons the figure of Poprishchin, and this tattered coat that has been worn by legends is a perfect fit for him. He shows a thousand faces in these ninety minutes, and of course it is not the quantity but the quality that makes his work sensational. At times he stumbles around clumsily like Chaplin, at other times he is the paragon of titular counsellors, scolding with pedagogical fervour those who do not understand him. Poprishchin is not merely afraid to disregard set constraints, he does not even think of questioning them. He observes continuously, and derives (non-)existent connections from the mass of data on one hand, and keeps parroting them on the other, until they fit perfectly into the maze-like jigsaw puzzle.

The world above or outside evoked by Keresztes through gestures, flickers in the eye, facial expressions and objects is primarily petty and hostile, but above all, incomprehensible. The department head, the girl adored from a distance, Poprishchin’s dog, the postman and the others all jostle on the pocket-size stage. As chaos takes over Poprishchin’s life, or rather, as a strict order that is hardly intelligible for us, but is highly consistent in the eye of the titular counsellor, takes over from the prevailing set of rules, the voice of the other characters get louder and louder, sometimes stifling the part of the lead figure altogether.

The actor constantly reacts to the artificial and artistic ambience, he plays it and mocks it, while winking at us and occasionally leaving us in uncertainty. Not even the theatre itself is spared during his stunning performance. In the meantime the body of Tamás Keresztes becomes a musical instrument that is unable to produce a single note off-pitch.

(Translated by Péter Papolczy)