Exploring insanity through the words of a writer, eyes of an actor

The story of a government servant and how his pursuit for happiness compounded by his alienation drives him mad.

Insanity is a trait that is incredibly attractive to actors. There is huge dramatic potential in playing “mad”. Though many portrayals are exuberant and over-the-top, the most attractive quality of these characters is the fact that the role demands a much deeper search for meaning, quite often, without the boundaries of the rational world.

Alzheimer’s and dementia are often the choice of madness for older actors. It’s a way of testing their skills that they have been sharpening throughout their career. Every veteran actor wants to play Lear.

He is almost the medal without which a resume is incomplete. Perhaps we think playing these characters also prepare us for the inevitable possibility that we might end up like them.

Actors at the other end of their careers seem to be attracted to bi-polar and schizophrenic characters. Each year during the search for plays by young people, the Thespo panel sees at least a dozen plays surrounding multiple personalities. Some of these are incredibly nuanced and insightful, but most are un-researched and histrionic, lacking real substance.

For those in the middle of their careers they salivate at Hamlet’s madness, or Dario Fo’s Lunatic in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, or all the characters in Marat/Sade. Yet the most coveted crazy person role has to be Poprishchin from Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman.

It is a step-by-step journey into understanding the reasons and the descent of a person into insanity. For years it has been held up as a literary masterpiece.

The story of a government servant and how his pursuit for happiness compounded by his alienation drives him mad. Not because of one big traumatic event, but because of the world around him.

If ever there were a tale that has resonance in today’s day and age, it is this one.

Living Pictures, Wales, thanks to a grant from the British Council are on a four city tour of India with their stage production of Gogol’s classic novella.

It is a remarkable play because even though it is a series of diary entries, and told by only one performer, it is riveting, uplifting, funny and poignant, all at the same time. Robert Bowman as the gormless protagonist takes you through the journey with such ease and lightness that you almost forget the larger theme of the piece, and simply go along for the ride.

His performance takes the normal tropes of hysteria or absentmindedness out of the equation and instead gives a dignity to the portrayal, that makes the story even more touching.

There is no question that as a society we are confronted with more mental problems than ever before. Whether it’s our lifestyle or diet or other factors, but more and more people are having breakdowns, and almost everyone you meet is related to someone who is facing some mental health issue.

Therefore it is no wonder that these conditions are finding their way onto our stages and screens.

While American TV shows like NCIS and CSI would like us to believe that all serial killers are undiagnosed mental patients; real life tells us that these people can live with self-worth and grace even with extreme mental distress. Diary of a Madman gives us a deeper understanding of people for whom the rules of our existence are

The writer is a Bombay-based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.

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