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REVIEW: ‘Diary of a Madman’ - by Matrix Productions at PIP Theatre

Matrix Productions' "Diary of a Madman," currently showing at PIP Theatre, offers a haunting and masterful exploration of the human psyche. Adapted from Nikolai Gogol's 1835 short story by David Holman, with contributions from Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, this production skilfully navigates the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, creating a theatrical experience that is both harrowing and profoundly human.

Directed by Michael Futcher, the play follows Aksentii Poprishchin, just an average Joe working a dead-end job in 19th century Russia, disappointed with life, and venting his frustrations in his diary every night as he isolates himself in his attic bedroom. His journal entries range from criticisms of his superiors to obsessive thoughts about his boss's daughter to a peculiar belief that dogs can talk. He starts with a standard date-based diary format, but at a certain point, even the dates take on an irrational form as his sense of conventional time dissolves. As his fixation on these imaginary canine conversations grows, the boundaries between reality and delusion blur, plunging him into a spiral of hilarious daydreams and heart-breaking schizophrenic episodes. As Poprishchin's alienation from society deepens, his entries become increasingly erratic, culminating in a tragic confinement in an asylum.


Have you ever met someone who can captivate you when narrating a ghost story around a campfire or dishing out juicy gossip over brunch, so much so that you become riveted? Even when speaking nonsense, Rowan Chapman’s performance is like this, timed and delivered with the flair of a stand-up comedy routine. Chapman delivers an extraordinary performance as Poprishchin, capturing both the entertaining absurdity and the lonesome despair of his character. Like watching a masterclass in acting - he applies every aspect of his physicality and vocal range to bring Poprishchin's chaotic mind to life. His interaction with the audience adds a unique layer to this performance, monologuing to us in a way that feels both disarrayed but relatable. Chapman's choice to give a vacant stare each time his thoughts suddenly shift – absolutely brilliant. His presence on stage for the full 90 minutes demands a huge amount of energy, earning him two rounds of applause upon conclusion of the show. Honestly, he provides some of the most expressive acting I’ve seen, as his evolution into the madman is somehow equally unnerving and heart-wrenching.

Sarah McIntosh performs several roles, including Tuovi, Poprishchin’s Finnish maid, his fantasy love interest Sophie, and a disturbing asylum captive. McIntosh transitions effortlessly between these characters, showcasing her versatility and heightening the emotional impact of the story with each role. Her portrayal of Tuovi evolves from comedic misunderstandings to a more sombre tone as she becomes increasingly desperate to assist Poprishchin. McIntosh also shared that she diligently studied Finnish language - and English in a Finnish accent - with a Finnish mentor, which she executes exceptionally well.

Lastly, Tabea Sitte’s string accompaniment adds a haunting layer to the production, intertwining with the narrative to underscore Poprishchin's fluctuating mental state. The electric violin is incredible; be sure to take the time to glance at Sitte and appreciate the skill. One of my favourite aspects was the interaction between Chapman and Sitte; he acknowledges her presence - and the audience - to make us feel a part of his delusional world.

Direction and Design:

Director Michael Futcher's vision is evident in the seamless blend of reality and fantasy. The staging effectively mirrors Poprishchin's fractured mind, with Josh McIntosh’s set and costume design creating a bleak yet versatile environment. The dank attic bedroom and dishevelled clothing reflect his aggrieved state from the beginning and becomes increasingly unkempt, incorporating short moments of darkness to add sweat, blood, and whip marks to his body to heighten the concern for the character. Caleb Bartlett’s lighting design further enhances the atmosphere by using stark uplighting and subtle changes to reflect the protagonist’s instability and enclose us in his delusional world.

Impact and Audience:

The play’s critique of the bureaucratic system remains strikingly relevant today, offering a timeless reflection on individual struggles against societal constraints. Plus, the depiction of mental illness is sensitive and impactful, shedding light on the often-misunderstood aspects of schizophrenia. The audience's response to the play was overwhelmingly positive, taking us from fits of laughter to contemplative silence in the blind of an eye. Rowan Chapman's embodiment of Poprishchin, supported by a talented cast and exceptional direction, prompted two rounds of applause. Then, we all sat there in a palpable sense of awe until the front-of-house staff had to ask us all to exit the theatre.

Matrix Productions' "Diary of a Madman" is a triumphant, thought-provoking piece of theatre that captures the essence of Gogol’s original work while infusing it with fresh energy. Running until June 1st, this adaptation is a must-see for those seeking a powerful exploration of the human condition. Don't miss the chance to witness this exceptional performance and grab a front-row seat for maximum interaction and immersion. It's a journey you won't soon forget - and trust me, you'll be talking about it for days to come!

Photos by Jeremy Veenstra


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