How Does Geoffrey Rush Warm Up for “Madman”?

March 6, 2011

What an astounding performance this is! Geoffrey Rush, whom I fell in love with in The King’s Speech, gives a bawdy, magnificent, and shattering rendition of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman at BAM. I don’t usually write about theater, but his shape shifting was so physical that I looked in the program notes for a choreographer credit. Nope. So I figure he came up with all the gloriously eccentric movement himself.

Just a few seconds of him imitating a cricket left an impression on me: the chirp coming from his mouth, the itchy fingers, the legs slightly rubbing. As the low-level civil servant Poprishchin, Rush slashes away in anger, gets weakened with infatuation, and jokes around vaudeville-style. The way his arms hang from his shoulders like they are too long for his body, and the way his knees seem tied together give him the look of a scarecrow (as he is described later in the piece by a talking dog—or rather, a writing dog). Rush is interesting to watch even when he’s just standing there. He can look helpless or powerful, clownish or grave. His rubbery face and shifting eyes fill up the whole stage of the BAM Harvey Theater. I would say it was the performance of a lifetime, but he started performing this role this 17 years ago.

I have seen only three other men keep an audience enthralled for two hours: Marcel Marceau, Bill T. Jones, and Barry McGovern (in Beckett’s I’ll Go On). Like those three, Rush has a spectacular balance of control and abandon—anarchy, really, or at least the illusion of anarchy. In Diary of a Madman, he is giddily carried on the crest of his own delusions, and yet he expertly steers us to see what he wants us to see.

He speaks directly to the audience—at one point he even asks an audience member to hold his bowl—and yet he is so totally inside this pathetic character that you get a double situation. You are watching him use all his performing skills and at the same time you’re involved in the story. This double awareness is reinforced by Alan John’s music (“after Mussorgsky”) played live. Musicians Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim play winds, strings, and percussion to transport you with an old-world flavor, but they also provide sound effects (for instance, when Poprishchin is scribbling with his quill pen, they make scratching noises) that make you aware of their presence.

This wonderful production, directed by Neil Armfield of Belvoir Theater in Australia, supports Rush’s outsized performance. (The other cast member, Yael Stone, was excellent too.) You follow every twist and turn of Poprishchin’s mounting delusions, to the point where he believes he’s the King of Spain.

Rush’s actions are so physical—crashing his bowl of soup to the floor, parading flamboyantly as a king, falling on the floor with limbs flailing in every direction—that I feel he uses his body as completely as a dancer does. So I wonder, does he do pliés and back curves before each performance?

The Diary of a Madman is at BAM until March 12.


Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM