Writer: Elchin Afandiyev
Director: Matthew Gould
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
The Public Reviews Rating:
At some point, about a third of the way through My Favourite Madman, it’s best to just forget about trying to gain cerebral enjoyment from this play and instead relax into the nonsensical characters and great performances on stage. Afterwards though, there will be plenty to reflect on if you want to get serious about it.
The writer, Elchin Afandiyev, is a bit of a literary heavyweight to say the least. He published his first novel at 16 and since then has written over 100 books and sold 5 million copies in over 20 languages. His subjects of choice are as diverse as Azerbaijani folklore, Shakespeare and Molière, and span nonfiction, fiction and other plays. He is also the Deputy Prime Minister of Azerbaijan. This sort of experience shows in the pacing and construction of this sometimes subtle but often deafening work.
The plot is less important than the characters in this play, acting just as a framework and a reason for the characters to be on stage. Briefly put, the Professor (Ralph Bogard) of the mental hospital’s favourite madman is on the loose, a man who can change his face and manner so well that he could become anyone he pleases to escape detection. The action takes place in the editorial office of a newspaper in Azerbaijan just after the fall of the USSR where the chief editor (an outstanding Richard Stirling) seeks to manage his office full of raving mad employees in the face of his own disintegrating reality.
This setting is cut in and out (helped by some really fantastic lighting work from Tom Kitney) with the Professor and a nurse who are on the hunt for the madman and who run around after their quarry and each other in a way that tunes the mind early on to the note of farce. The action builds and builds, with the characters getting more and more ridiculous – the secretary (Victoria Farley) who thinks she is a pheasant is delightfully eccentric – until the two strands come together in a terrific collision of absurdity.
Unsurprisingly there is a lot of pride, ambition and affection shown here for the new republic in Azerbaijan, with several mentions of how great the country is and how much better it will be (the play is set in 1995, remember) than when it was behind the Iron Curtain. There is also some musing on the nature of sanity versus madness. These are fair points and do add to the overall effect of the play, although it is entirely possible to enjoy the piece without paying them too much attention. What does detract from it though is the distracting way the Professor cheats out when talking to the nurse in their scenes and the vague focus and cacophonous noisiness of the opening scene when Oliver Mawdsley’s Literary Critic is trying to kill himself. These may seem like small things, and they are, but between them they mean that this work takes longer than it possibly should to hit its stride.
However, it is a funny play, one that shows off cracking talent (Danny Wainwright has to be singled out here) and will entertain. Between them, Afandiyev and the director Matthew Gould have created a funny, memorable and worthwhile farce with depth. If this is an example of the humour and theatre that can come from Azerbaijani/UK collaboration then we should welcome more examples like it with open arms.
Runs until 13th April
Tags: Andrew Sykes, Covent Garden, Daniel Robinson, Danny Wainwright, Elchin Afandiyev, Gareth Bennett-Ryan, John Nicoll,London, Matthew Gould, Memed Ansari, My Favourite Madman, Oliver Mawdsley, Ralph Bogard, Richard Stirling, Sanan Aliyev,Tom Kitney, Tristan Bates Theatre, Victoria Farley, Victoria Sye
Photography provided by ALOFF Theatre
As the title suggests, this play is not run-of-the-mill Friday night fare. Described in its publicity material as "anarchic" and "a rollercoaster ride", the work truly hits the ground running with a frenetic, loud and overwhelming opening scene, dropping us immediately into the chaos of fantasy which is the backbone of the play.
Given the subject matter, it seems almost unbelievable that the playwright, Elchin Afandiyev, is also the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Azerbaijan - yet also, somehow, completely right. ALOFF Theatre exists to organise productions of Azerbaijani plays for the benefit of UK audiences, again fitting given the country's embrace of the arts against its Muslim background. But Afandiyev's genuine love for his country is clear from the script, shining from the very centre of the piece, ably supported by director Matthew Gould.
Set in Baku, where Afandiyev attended university, and the main plot follows a manic Professor (Ralph Bogard) searching for the titular madman, with the assistance of his devoted Nurse (Victoria Sye). Meanwhile, in an editorial office, the Chief Editor (Richard Stirling) of a newly established newspaper tries desperately to maintain order over his (increasingly insane) employees. The play challenges us to work out who is the sane voice - and which one could be "the madman"?
At 90 minutes the play feels just right; the intensity of the script means that much longer, and the audience may also be joining the birdlike-flapping, conspiracy-theorising, poetry-writing characters onstage. Frustration is a constant companion; the inability to make sense, or meaningful connections for the characters, and the inability to help the lovelorn Literary Critic (Oliver Mawdsley) who spends a disconcertingly long time with a phone wire noose around his neck.
The feeling of madness is heightened with echolalia and cyclical phrases ("The grass grows!"), particularly in case of the Professor and the Nurse, played with a staring, spitting intensity which gives the audience chills. Yet it's not a po-faced sort of work; there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud lines and the piece is, at heart, an Absurdist comedy. Early on, as the Nurse and the Professor chase one another on and off the stage, the farce is well established.
Cuts between the two scenes are cleanly signalled by some gorgeous lighting from Tom Kitney. The newsroom is filled with characters each afflicted by a particular type of insanity - from the Political Columnist (Danny Wainwright) who is a KGB conspiracy theorist, to the Russian language writer (Panteleimon Polikarpovich, played by Gareth Bennett-Ryan) who believes he is connected to his contemporaries from a former life. And, of course, the Secretary (Victoria Farley) who believes she is actually a pheasant. Each character embodies a particular madness and it is impossible not to feel deeply sorry for the Chief Editor, played with utter sincerity by the sublime Stirling.
Within the chaos, it's sometimes hard to pick out individual lines, particularly in the opening. Although this is done deliberately, enhancing the suffocating atmosphere, it remains off-putting and does Afandiyev's dialogue no favours. And on occasion, the performances have the tendency to become too knowing, which detracts from the farce - Sye's Nurse conducts one monologue under terrifying lighting in a scene which is 80% Lady Macbeth - but mostly this is a solid production.
Another minor note of contention for this reviewer was the herbal cigarettes used by one character, which were utterly foul to the point of being a distraction.
These are minor criticisms, however, of a piece which is by turns thoughtful, profound, silly and overwhelming, coloured with pride of a newly-formed republic. A very different piece of theatre which is enjoyable and engaging, and stays with you long after leaving the venue.
My Favourite Madman, Tristan Bates Theatre
everything theatre is an honest and unpretentious guide to the London theatre scene.
Directed by Matthew Gould
Pros: Elchin Afandlyev is a world-renowned writer. He has the ability to condense a lot of thinking into a 90 minute play, and some of his musings are inspired.
Cons: The script is very literary and as such it is a bit of a challenge.
Our Verdict: It’s not every day of the week that you can go and get an insight into the affairs of Azerbaijan. With the exception of this week.
First thing to be said about Elchin Afandlyev is that he keeps himself busy. Very busy. He has written over 100 books, and is the deputy prime minister of the Republic of Azerbaijan. I am going to have to start setting my alarm clock a good half hour earlier. Oh, and when he finds himself at a loose end he turns his hand to writing plays.
As the title may suggest My Favourite Madman
is quite off the wall. In fact, one of the opening scenes is a little overwhelming. It is a state of the nation play in an absurdist form; much of the absurdism is highly inventive. The nation is Azerbaijan, of course, and the action takes place in its capital Baku in 1995. This is 4 years after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. I’d say that it’s a representation of the collective unconscious of its people. Not that I’d bet your house on it. At the time they were trying to deal with their having just become a constitutional republic.
The Professor and The Nurse are searching for the doctor’s favourite madman, who has escaped. The several candidates all work for a newspaper. In the paper’s office the editor tries his best to bring them round to seeing sense. There is a Literary Critic who is suicidal. He spends a disconcertingly long time with a telephone cable wrapped round his neck. All of us in the audience were tempted to go and untangle him. Then there's The Political Columnist who thinks he has finally found the truth. The truth is… the grass grows. And there’s The Secretary who for reasons unknown believes herself to be a pheasant. She keeps on flapping round the stage and on and off of it. Rumour has it this actress can’t stop from flapping in her sleep now.
Each of the characters speaks their own form of anti-logic on some aspect of Azerbaijani society. As is often the case with anti-logic it seems filled with logic. To be sure I'd have to sit down and study the script. Before that I’d have to brush up on my Azerbaijani history too. Some of the commentaries are wonderful in their mad playfulness. An employee’s absence from work is blamed upon meetings in outer space (either upon Venus or Saturn) with the long-dead Lenin, who to this day is still feeling a dislike towards the Armenians. Yet more entertaining is a conspiracy theory section about how the KGB have achieved world domination. They are only pretending to have disappeared. Bill Clinton is a KGB general in a most brilliant disguise; Fidel Castro is not all he appears to be; a new language is being spoken in Mongolia. Plus the editor is accused of having been an 18th century Russian Azerbaijani and a descendant of The Prophet. Indeed he had been the Great Circumciser.
Regarding the performances they are all strong and played with total commitment. The writing has a mad energy to it. This is fed upon with healthy appetites. However I was a little less sure about the style of direction. All the actors deliver their lines with a kind of staginess. This gives a quality of farce which somehow doesn’t quite work. Tom Kitney’s lighting brings atmosphere to the black box space. He makes fairy lights, in particular, look surprisingly good. Finally, there is an orchestral soundscape from the prize-winning composer Memed Ansari. If I’d been wearing a hat I’d have taken it off to his talent.
All in all My Favourite Madman
is a complex essay on cultural heritage, fractured identities, and nation formation, but from time to time the script was beyond me.