david holman / playwrighting / playwriting

From Story to Stage: Diary of a Madman

In anticipation of the upcoming production of Diary of a Madman at The Street Theatre, we were lucky enough to catch up with the writer, David Holman. Playwright of over 70 productions, David’s most recent project has been to adapt Nikolai Gogol’s short story, Diary of a Madman, for the stage.

Diary of a Madman is Nikolai Gogol’s dark comedy of imagination unleashed in a low-ranking public servant driven insane by the society he lives in. Enter a fantastical world filled with laughter and rage, the tragic and rapturous, and one man’s quest for individuality in a seemingly indifferent, urban city. Featuring PJ Williams and Lily Constantine. At The Street Theatre 2 – 16 June.

We asked David to share the story of how the play was written, and the story is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Australian theatre’s greatest.

Thinking back it’s strange how this play got to be written. It has to do with the friendships I had formed with two gentlemen in particular since first coming to work in Australia in 1983. At that time I’d never heard of director Neil Armfield and actor Geoffrey Rush but meeting and then seeing their work that year was my good luck. It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story but here we go.

I am principally a theatre writer for young audiences. That’s my love, that’s my trade, that’s what I’m good at. And that was the reason I was first invited to Australia to research (and, later, write) a play for the State Theatre of South Australia’s Magpie Theatre (its theatre for youngsters). It was to be Magpie’s contribution to the prestigious Adelaide Festival the following year. The resultant play No Worries turned out to be about a nine-year-old farm girl forced off the land along with her parents after years of up country drought.  I had written scenes where the actors had to play farm dogs, chickens and sheep.

It was vitally important to the director, Chris Johnson (and me), that the animals were authentically played. It was our very good luck that the State Theatre’s resident company under the direction, at that time, of the very young Neil Armfield, contained a Le Coq (Paris) trained actor. He was an expert in theatrical physical movement and mime and was kind enough to offer his movement services to Magpie gratis. When the play finally hit the stage our production had sheep, dogs and chooks any writer and director would be proud of. A key scene in the play is when the girl’s father, his sheep starving and with no value, has to shoot them. All of them. One by one the sheep fell. I’ve never heard a theatre so quiet. The name of this generous, young, and not yet well known, classical actor was Geoffrey Rush.

Two years later – again in Adelaide to prepare for the 1986 Adelaide Festival – Geoffrey was taking time out from acting to direct Magpie Theatre and he had the idea that I should write a play about Aussie five years olds and their first day at ‘big school.’  The children, as in No Worries were to be played by adult actors. It was an A grade idea. The researching of this play involved Geoff, me and the six actors splitting up to visit a range of South Australian schools to find out what had happened to that year’s five year olds as they faced the terrifying ‘big school’ gates for the first time. We needed to get these nippers to tell us not only their unique stories, but their jokes and playground games. The actors then met every evening to share what our five year olds (and their teachers, and parents) had told us. A most enjoyable, and as it turned out, rewarding period of time for all of us—and another successful play—The Small Poppies. I’ve had plenty of good times in the theatre but that particular period of research with that group remains a high point.

A few years later I was watching Geoffrey playing the lead in a play in a small theatre in Sydney. Geoffrey had high hopes of the production giving his career a little push upwards but for some reason it didn’t quite hit the mark. I was on my way back to England that day but ran into Neil at the theatre and we were discussing the production (it wasn’t Neil’s) and Geoffrey’s future career. He still needed a vehicle to give him a push. Leaving for the airport I remembered my parting shot to Neil was. ‘You know what Geoff would be terrific in? Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. Get someone to adapt it for him. See you next year in Adelaide maybe.’

I should explain that years before I had seen a version of this story on the London stage. The actor Nicol Williamson had the stage more or less to himself for the whole two hours and was mesmeric. I had seen Geoffrey in Adelaide in the mid-eighties compare a series of ‘theatre sports’ events (improvisations by actors on stuff shouted at them by the audience) that were very popular at the time.  Whether in his beloved Shakespeare or the works of Aussie quillmeister Stephen Sewell, Geoffrey was a brilliant ensemble actor but occasionally loved having the stage to himself – to show off. Hence my suggestion.

I then went back to England to resume my life in children’s theatre writing with a play at the National Theatre in London. And I forgot all about Australia for a while. A year or so later, I got a call from Neil in Sydney. ‘That idea you had for Geoffrey.’ ‘What idea, Neil?’ ‘Diary of a Madman.’ ‘Oh, that?’ ‘Will you write it for Belvoir Street.’ ‘Neil, I write children’s plays. Sorry, no.’

Cut a long story short. You can’t say ‘No’ to Neil for long. I adapted the story. Posted it to Neil, got on with my life and heard nothing more about it. Months later in London I got another midnight call from Neil. It sounded like he was phoning from a very noisy spot. And indeed he was. The press night of Diary of Madman at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney had just happened.

‘We’ve got a hit.’ shouted Neil

‘What hit,’ I said? ‘

Diary of a Madman!’ Neil shouted.

‘Geoffrey’s on fire.’

I was amazed. I had long thought the two boys must have junked the project.  ‘You got it on?’

‘Got it on? The run’s a sell out.’

The boys had done a fantastic job modelling the script I’d sent them to suit Geoffrey’s unique talents. The production toured Australia, went to Soviet Georgia, and a revival went to New York. And all of our lives changed a little bit after that. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.

David Holman is an English playwright with over 70 plays to his credit. He has been granted resident status in Australia, and has worked regularly between Australia and England since l983, when he was first commissioned by the State Theatre Company of South Australia to write the now acclaimed and much performed No Worries for the Magpie Theatre produced at the 1984 Adelaide Festival. He wrote the second commissioned work for the same company The Small Poppies for the l986 Adelaide Festival, and completed his trilogy of plays for Magpie and the State Theatre Company for their Bicentennial Adelaide Festival in l988—Beauty and the Beast. His plays are performed all over the world and have been translated into many languages.

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