19th October2011

Archive review

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Curve, 14th October to 5th November 2011.

“You must follow the rules”, Nurse Ratched demands of her patients on the ward of the mental institution where the play is set. The ward is organised like a prison; rules, policies and strict routine are order of the day. Medication is handed out, a ‘chemical cosh’ designed to keep the inmates subdued and compliant.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Next, 2011, Curve. Photo © Jonathan Keenan
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Next, 2011, Curve.
Photo © Jonathan Keenan

The asylum is run like a military academy, with an emphasis on order, routine and compliance and a belief in the curative properties of discipline. The day is organised into a series of activities and events, one of which is group therapy in which the inmates are encouraged to talk about themselves and discuss individuals.

The ostensibly ‘democratic’ regime of the therapy group is portrayed as being manipulated and controlled both by the steely Nurse Ratched (Catherine Russell) and by the patients themselves, not least by McMurphy who organises them to vote in favour of watching the world series on the TV.

In to the orderly routine of the ward comes Randle McMurhpy (Michael Beckley), a brawling, aggressive but fun loving, untamed rogue of a man who, in those days, would have been referred to a ‘recidivist’. He has been committed to the institution as an alternative to being sent to the drudgery of the penal work farm, having committed a variety of offences during his life of drunkenness and debauchery.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve. Photo © Jonathan Keenan
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve.
Photo © Jonathan Keenan

The plot is set. The characters and their relationships are ready and ignited to burn towards the explosive ending of the play. The ward is a microcosm of the wider society, the USA of the time (the late fifties, early sixties). The story is about rebellion against authority, revolt against tyranny, insurgency – sounds familiar?

We discover that the inmates of the ward fall into two groups: those with acute conditions that are there to be cured and eventually released and those with chronic conditions for which a cure is not an option. Referred to as “vegetables”, their fate is to be warehoused indefinitely. One such inmate is Chief Bromden (Thomas Renshaw), a native American Indian, who spends most of his time, motionless in a chair, apparently deaf and dumb.

Chief Bromden understands the struggle for power that he sees in McMurphy’s bid to take on the might of Nurse Ratched. It is through Bromden’s eyes that we see the underlying significance of the struggle of the individual against the machine.

It is his relationship with McMurphy which is pivotal to the whole plot. Initially said to be deaf, dumb and catatonic, he delivers a set of soliloquies, illuminated by a bright spotlight in an otherwise darkened stage. The mysterious monologues unravel a deeper meaning to the plot. In the later stages of the play, McMurphy and Chief Bromden engage in a duo scene, impeccably and movingly acted by Renshaw and Beckly.

Another revelation appears later in the play when we find that some of the acute patients were admitted voluntarily; something which shocks Randle McMurphy. He is accused of feigning mental illness to avoid the penal rigours of the work farm. He believes that some of the voluntary patients chose to be there as a way of escaping unbearable situations in their personal lives.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve. Photo © Jonathan Keenan
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, 2011, Curve.
Photo © Jonathan Keenan

Are they mad? It’s a theme that had been around since the time of Shakespeare, who used madness, either real or contrived, in Hamlet and King Lear. The twist that writer Ken Kasey puts on this theme is to question the sanity of the wider society and of the people who are running the mental institution.

McMurphy refers to group therapy as “chicken pecking” – one member of the group is pecked to death by the others. If life on the ward is not brutal enough, there is the spectre of ECT – electro convulsive therapy – in which patients are subjected to electric shocks which send their brains and bodies into spasms. That is not the ultimate punishment that could be inflicted. If ECT fails to modify their behaviour, violent patients could be subjected to surgery, having parts of their brains removed.

Randle is determined to conquer the case-hardened tutelage of ward nurse Ratched. She is a taught figure, an iron lady whose dictatorship must be obeyed to the letter. The battle of wills winds towards its dramatic and tragic denouement.

The production was well cast, the characters fitting the plot like a glove and the cast delivered a set of superbly acted roles. Altogether, an excellent production, mixing the darkness of the plot with moments of humour and pathos. Their acting skills created a believable storyline and the result was a convincing play that did justice to the book.

The cast brought the story to life and made it enthralling. Like many in the audience, I had seen the film, in fact, more than once. A story about mental patients in an asylum might seem to be an unattractive theme, depressingly sombre and far from uplifting. Novelist Ken Casey used the plot to open up something about the wider society of the day and to explore aspects of the human condition.

Designer Ellen Cairns has put together a set that fitted the plot, the one room of the ward, given depth by the clever use of perspective, with the lines of the room using well known optical illusions to make it look much bigger than it really was.

Was this production enjoyable and entertaining? Last time I was at Curve, I saw a musical. That certainly was enjoyable and entertaining. Being the person I am, I don’t only like bright, happy, joyful entertainments. Plays, films and books can lift one’s spirits in a variety of ways and stimulate the mind. This was a piece of ‘drama noire’, a dark thriller with a tragic ending. It plays out issues that speak to us on a variety of levels.

Drama does not have to be superficial to be entertaining and often deals with the darker and challenging elements of the world and human existence. Director Michael Buffong has done an excellent job of keeping the action and the drama taught and convincing. The plot unwinds towards its (literally) explosive ending. The stark ambience of the clinical ward is lightened by comedic moments and by amusing quirks and idiosyncrasies of the characters.

Acting lunatics is never easy but Paul Joseph did a particularly brilliant job of playing the catatonic Ruckley, a victim of over-used ECT. Based on Ken Casey’s iconic, cult novel of 1962 (his first book), and the 1975 Oscar winning film starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Milos Forman, that was based on it, both are credited with dealing the death blow to ETC. They influenced the emergence of the anti-psychiatry movements both in the ‘states and here in the UK by opening up the sinister world of state psychiatry to the public.

The book was quickly brought to the stage by playwright Dale Wasserman. Broadway was ripe for productions with social issues, ever since West Side Story opened in 1957. Several stage productions of the play have appeared, both in the West End and in the Midlands.

This review was published on Arts In Leicester magazine in 2011.