Writer: Elchin Afandiyev
Director: Matthew Gould
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
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.