Diary of a Madman opens on a chat between two teenage girls. It is a conversation about boys, losing your virginity at the back of a car and Queen Mary of Scotland. Yes, all of these at once. Right before she exits, Mel (Lois Chimimba) brazenly exclaims to her friend Sophie (Louise McMenemy): ‘We are the kingmakers!’ By the time we reach the end of Diary of a Madman, Al Smith’s modern retelling of Nikolai Gogol’s tale, the cheeky one-liner will have taken on a different meaning altogether.
Instead of Gogol’s civil servant, the protagonist of Smith’s Diary of a Madman is Pop Sheeran (Liam Brennan), tasked with maintaining and painting the Forth Bridge, not far from Edinburgh. His life with his wife (Deborah Arnott) and their teenage daughter, Sophie (the name of the protagonist’s love interest in the 19th century version of the story) comes to a turn when a posh English student, Matthew White (Guy Clark), comes to stay with the family with the project to try out a revolutionary new paint that could potentially make Pop redundant. Pop’s sanity slowly unravels, a process strongly portrayed by Liam Brennan.
The scene is set in modern day Scotland. Very modern, even. Pop’s breakdown at the fear of losing his job feels all too close to home. In addition, the play abounds with allusions to political news (the ‘two referendums’, the Indy Ref, and the Brexit) and to very up-to-date pop culture (like a joking mention of ‘Hiddleswift’). They give the play a sense of vivacity and urgency, poised by repeated references to Scottish past and traditions, from Queensferry’s Burryman day to William Wallace and Greyfriars Bobby, his faithful dog. Playing with Scottish references and context, the play is also explicit in its condemnation of Pop’s caricatural nationalism and pretensions to being ‘the only man in the house’, as Matthew’s Englishness and his interest in Sophie make him the baffled target of the father’s hostility.
This balance, and the play’s never-fading wit, is bound to win the audience’s complicity. Its humour alone would make Diary of a Madman worth watching. But the play’s real asset is its capacity to jump from humour to unease, from comfort to sharp anxiety. Watching Diary of a Madman proves an intense, emotional experience, and, its political content aside, the play’s approach of mental health and its impact on family bonds is both moving and accurate. By making Pop the victim of a genuine case of nationalist psychosis, however, the play also cleverly questions the strain put on individuals by their social and political environment. Overall, Diary of a Madman is an excellent performance, and a strong reflection on personal and national identity.