Al Smith’s Diary of a Madman is an adaptation of Gogol’s short story, reimagined as a play about Scottish nationalism and mental illness.
Pop Sheeran is an Edinburgh man who – following in the footsteps of his father and his father’s father – has dedicated his entire life’s work to painting the historic Forth Bridge.
Sheeran struggles to remember the words of the old dreg songs that Edinburgh fisherman used to sing as they navigated their way along the Firth of Forth; he obsesses over an app that tells him he is a serf and not a thane; during a series of psychotic episodes he has conversations with Greyfriars Bobby and imagines that he is William Wallace.
In short, Diary of a Madman is a play about a displaced sense of cultural identity and its psychological effects.
Sheeran’s sense of pride and place is threatened by the arrival of Mathew White – an MA student from Edinburgh University who reveals that the constant application of fresh layers of red paint onto Sheeran’s bridge (representing generations of labour) is causing structural damage. He tells Sheeran that the bridge isn’t Scottish anyway – it was built by an English engineer using Welsh materials, and it’s about to be bought by a Qatari.
To make matters worse, he’s also interested in Sheeran’s daughter.
Al Smith’ play is a strange and thoughtful reflection on the role of history and place is shaping our identities and in ensuring our mental wellbeing.
It’s a common theme in 21st century drama – Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem similarly reflect on the relationship between mental illness and the clash between progress and traditional values that characterises modern existence.
In the context of the recent referendums on Europe and on Scotland, and the rise of nationalism across the globe – it isn’t difficult to see how vital a subject matter this is.
The acting is top in Christopher Haydon’s production: truthful, understated, but full of heart. Lois Chimimba and Louise McMenemy as Sheehan’s daughter and her best friend are especially good; and Liam Brennan as Sheeran offers a tender portrait of a man wrestling with inner demons.