In 19thcentury Russia, civil servants were secretly destined for greatness. But not all of them knew. At least, they may not have realised until later in life, when they’d already become an integral part of the clockwork-like machine that was the Russian state. Some of them, however, always had this tingling feeling in their bones, a feeling of something missing, of being out of place. Despite his outstanding reputation as a musician, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky wasn’t unfamiliar with that feeling. In fact, he may have lived with it for most of his life.
Another Russian character who didn’t quite fit into his designated role of a low-ranking civil servant is Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, the hero in Nikolai Gogol’s classic Diary of a Madman. In the first instance, the two personalities don’t seem to have much in common: one an acclaimed musician whose legacy resonates across the globe; the other a fictional pitiful man whose disappointment and dissatisfaction with life slowly lead him down the path of madness.
And yet, actor Oleg Sidorchik beautifully jumps back and forth between these two characters, seamlessly embracing each personality and expressing divergent emotions from one moment to the next. The contrasting yet relatable stories are cleverly intertwined in Xameleon Theatre’s latest production Diaries of Madmen (2019). It takes the audience on an intriguing journey through the lives, loves and losses of two people. Their paths never crossed, but their emotions, feelings and realities seem present through their own words, scribbled in diaries and letters.
A 3×3 projector screen forms the centrepiece of Konstantin Kamenski’s stage setup. It’s placed prominently on the ground of the stage, illuminated only by a spotlight to reflect the actor’s movements, moods and words as they interact ith it – sometimes burning, sometimes showing a street map, sometimes just colours running into each other. In the same fashion, the audience’s treated to some of Tchaikovsky’s most popular pieces, underlining what’s portrayed on stage in harmony with the grand composer’s own narrative.
In the play, Tchaikovsky and Poprishchin both yearn to break free from the repetitive joke that’s bureaucracy and do something that gives their lives meaning and purpose. Their interpretation of the world and its many possibilities is, however, completely different. Whilst the former has a clear idea what he wants to achieve and is committed to sacrifice everything in order to pursue his dream, the latter’s trapped in a hamster wheel, only led by his fantasies for the director’s daughter.
The more he becomes prisoner to his own delusions, stealing letters written to reveal his beloved’s most intimate secrets, the more Tchaikovsky becomes committed to leave his bureaucratic career to follow his passion of creating music. The two character’s motivations couldn’t be more contrasting. One a nervous, unconfident, and self-belittling personality; the other brimming with self-esteem, confident that, one day, he’ll succeed. Still, both men equally suffer equally from unmet expectations and disappointments.
Despite his talent and dedication, Tchaikovsky endured tremendous creative setbacks throughout his career. Sidorchik’s fantastic portrayal of this torment’s reflected on the projector screen with shadows eating up Tchaikovsky’s plagued soul when his works are repeatedly slashed by the critical press. The public humiliation after his masterpiece Swan Lake’s torn to pieces leads to a major breakdown.
Meanwhile, Poprishchin’s illusions reach a new level and he believes he’s the undercover King of Spain. This marks the beginning of the end for the titular counsellor, and he soon finds himself in a Russian madhouse. In his delirium, he thinks he’s in Spain, mistaking the wardens and doctors as members of his royal court. But something’s odd about how he, the King, is treated; his head shaven and his body beaten. He doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. The reality he’s created for himself isn’t making sense anymore. Similarly, Tchaikovsky struggles to comprehend why his life’s work isn’t appreciated and celebrated in the way he imagined.
Agony forms the bond between the madman and the genius. Xameleon theatre did a wonderful job of creating an engaging, interesting and captivating theatrical illustration of the ever-widening abyss of losing the grip of reality. Sidorchik’s characterisation of the two personalities is energetic and convincing, bringing an unconventionally high level of pure power to the stage. All the while, his performance is brilliantly supported co-star Irina Kara, whose versatile, but mostly silent role adds the jewel to the crown. Poignant expression allows non-Russian speakers to understand the essence of Diaries of Madmen. Bringing together text, sound and visuals, the play speaks to us in the universal language of deep human emotions. It cleverly plays on human fears, doubts and uncertainties, resonates with our everyday FOMO (fear of missing out) and reminds us that, sometimes, we too have to be a little mad to succeed.