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Farcical play has serious side

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If there was one fictional short story from the 19th century that helped open discussion about mental health it would have to be the absurd yet powerfully clever Diary of a Madman by Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

Written in 1835, the story of a low-level public servant’s descent into insanity was ahead of its time and has proved to be an important sociological tool that helped psychologists more accurately diagnose schizophrenia in a time when such diseases were not widely studied.

Because it is one of the first accounts, albeit fictional, of schizophrenia, it emerged as an important reference tool for researchers and even today plays a vital role in the study of the history of the treatment of mental illness.

The story itself, however, is brilliant and engaging on every level.

Gogol’s masterpiece easily translates into a dark comedy perfectly designed for the stage.

And the good folk at Canberra’s intimate Street Theatre have done just that with it.

A short season of Diary of a Madman opens at the Street on June 2, playing through to June 16.

Award-winning actor PJ Williams portrays the protagonist Poprishchin, who slaves away in relative anonymity while yearning for his existence to be acknowledged – by his colleagues, his superiors and by a beautiful woman.

Written, and therefore acted, as diary entries, this narration of the life of the story’s hero (anti-hero) is filled with laughter, tragedy, rage and rapture. Originally set in St Petersburg at the time of the Tsar, it depicts alienation in society extremely well.

While Gogol’s story has long been recognised as a powerful dissection of mental disintegration, it was also hugely influential on a generation of writers who followed.

And if the Street Theatre is true to form, their production will be nothing short of outstanding.

Bookings and more information on (02) 6247 1223 or through www.thestreet.org.au



Photo by Shelly Higgs