Monday, December 17, 2007

Diary of a Madman and Dream of a Ridiculous Man Review

Photo: Clayton Jevne of Theatre Inconnu (

Diary of a Madman and Dream of a Ridiculous Man continue at 1923 Fernwood Road until December 29th. Call 360-0234 for tickets.

Clayton Jevne of Theatre Inconnu usually performs his one-man version of Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol at this time of year...why the switch this year to versions of Gogol and Dostoyevski stories?

As you may have seen, Clayton Jevne is the cover story of this week's Monday Magazine, as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of his small theatre company Theatre Inconnu, or “Unknown Theatre” that has been performing regularly in Victoria since 1987. Jevne founded and ran the Victoria Shakespeare Festival for many years and has managed a number of different theatre spaces around town, from a tiny shoebox space in Market Square, to a tent in the Inner Harbour, to St. Anne's Academy and now his relatively new space in the Little Fernwood Centre across the road from the Belfry on Fernwood Road. Throughout these twenty years, Jevne has presented a widely-ranging program of classic and contemporary plays that have offered Victoria theatre-goers the rare opportunity to see a number of plays that would never otherwise be seen. His programming choices have been described as 'eclectic' and that seems a fair never know what to expect from season to season, and definitely some shows work better than others, but I am always happy to have the chance to see plays by lesser-known European playwrights, or classics by playwrights such as Pinter, George Ryga and many others. To celebrate this anniversary, Jevne has decided to remount Dostoyevski's short story that he originally performed way back in 1984. He has paired this one-act play with a new production of Gogol's short story Diary of a Madman.

I understand that the epitaph on Gogol's gravestone reads “I shall laugh my bitter laugh”. Does that quote describe Diary of a Madman?

Absolutely. Gogol is famous for his sharp satires of overblown Russian government bureaucracy in the early 1800's. Many of his characters possess the peculiar and particular Russian quality of poshlost which translates best as 'self-satisfied inferiority' or 'false importance and cleverness'. The narrator of Madman fits this quality to a 'T' as he describes his contempt for both his betters (with a couple of exceptions) and those beneath him in the strict social class structure of czarist Russia. While the narrator longs for the beautiful and unattainable daughter of the 'Director', he also begins to hear dogs in conversation and so starts to slowly decline into delusions of grandeur and full-blown insanity. So the story has that uniquely Russian quality of both humor and sadness mixed together as we watch this pompous yet insignificant 'titular counsellor' descend into madness in the grips of believing he is actually the king of Spain.

What about The Dream of a Ridiculous Man by it in a similar satirical theme as the Gogol?

Not at all. Dostyesvski, one of the greatest writers of all time, was influenced early in his life by utopian socialism and was imprisoned in Siberia in the 1840s for this perceived threat to the czar and his regime. While Dostoevski moved away from these utopian dreams later in his career-- as he began to explore a psychologism and existentialism in his writing that remains a huge influence on any number of authors--the short story presented here hearkens back to the utopian dream of a better world. The narrator tells us about a dream he had one night as he fell asleep in contemplation of suicide, due to his feelings of total indifference to a totally indifferent world. This dream sees him shoot himself yet remain conscious of his funeral and burial. He is then taken by a mysterious stranger through outer space to a planet like Earth but perfect in every way, a society built on love of both nature and humanity. While his presence eventually poisons this perfection, rendering it into a dystopia we recognize all too well, the narrator awakens from this dream to a renewed sense of purpose and a will to live.

As both these stories are pieces of literature rather than plays, how well did you feel they worked as theatre?

Both stories feature first-person narrators who speak directly to the audience, which helps a lot in turning these pieces of literature into theatre. Any story written in third-person needs to be re-written in a more immediate and direct voice in order to work well dramatically. That said, this is still essentially a form of Reader's Theatre, albeit at a high level of achievement. As we are listening to and watching an actor interpret two short stories, the demands on an audience are quite high and this show is over two hours long. So audiences should come prepared to meet that challenge...this is not light entertainment! While this production is intentionally minimal...the first piece has a bare stage and a couple of props, the second a table and chair...the words of these great authors definitely paint pictures in your mind, as any fine literature will do.
And what about the work of Clayton Jevne in these roles, and of the director Graham McDonald?

Jevne's performances in both roles is very strong. His madman in the Gogol is somewhat stylized, exaggerated and overblown for comic effect. His transitions in one lengthy scene between the character of a small dog and himself is very well done. Simply propping himself up against a pole of one side of the stage allows us to imagine him either working at his desk or lying in bed. As the character descends in to madness, his movement becomes more manic and Jevne uses his gestural vocabulary to great effect as he circles the tiny stage. In the Dostoyevski, Jevne's performance is much more naturalistic as he very simply tells us the story of what happened to this narrator one fateful November 3rd. This piece is the more challenging of the two to make theatrical, as it is mostly the relating of a fantastic dream, so we are drawn in by Jevne's detailed physical and facial expressions. Director McDonald has Jevne make effective use of levels by standing and lying on the table, even turning it on its side at one point, but this piece is more static and could perhaps have used some judicious editing to help sustain interest. There is a lack of dramatic tension in descriptions of utopias, afterall they are supposed to be perfect and therefore conflict-free, so it only when the utopia starts to slip into sinfulness and human evil that the dream gains some power. Overall, this production offers an alternative to the usual light Christmas fare and will be stimulating for anyone interested in Russian literature and the satirical and moral issues they explore.

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