Photos – Marya Rothe
Although well known in subsequent decades as a classic 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson, Dale Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel not only predates the movie but was a Broadway hit in its own time. It is a strong play with many excellent roles, necessitating a large cast by today’s standards, which manages to make effective use of a single-room setting as a crucible for some expansive yet deeply intimate human drama.
Set in the 1960s, it is the story of a small group of patients in a psychiatric ward whose lives of resignation to quiet misery are enlivened by the arrival of a boisterous and cunning new inmate, one Randle P. McMurphy. Possibly feigning psychosis in the hopes of avoiding manual labour at a prison work farm, McMurphy is an irreverent, fast-talking trickster, a compulsive gambler, womaniser and troublemaker, determined to thumb his nose at any system in which he finds himself. This rabble-rouser soon discovers that he may have met his match in Miss Ratched, head nurse of the ward.
In the play as written, Nurse Ratched is more than a chief administrator. She is the true voice of supreme authority over these patients, with aides and doctors alike marching to her tune. Behind her prim smiles and polite language seethes a ruthless and manipulative resolve to get her own way at all turns and mercilessly punish those who defy her, a veritable Tin Hitler of her own petty domain. When McMurphy and Ratched lock horns, it is the proverbial irresistible force meeting the immovable object, and their clash of personalities will soon become an all-out war.
It is important to note that although Kesey’s original 1962 novel was written in part as an indictment of real psychiatric practices of the era based, on his own personal observation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is much more than that, however. Clearly functioning on a more metaphorical level, it should not be taken too literally, particularly in terms of having any particular bearing on more modern views on mental health care. It is as much a fable offering social comment about the relativity of our concepts of normality, masculine fragility, the pressures of conformity and especially works as a powerful meditation on notions of captivity and the abuses of bureaucracy and other forms of institutional power.
Themes of oppressive order versus dangerous chaos are writ large upon its lead characters, with Nurse Ratched flowering into a true authoritarian villain, while McMurphy comes to be presented as a too-dangerous-to-live revolutionary and a not-so-subtle Jesus metaphor. While elements of the plot will eventually suggest otherwise, the psychiatric ward is dramatically framed very much as a prison rather than a hospital, with Ratched joining the pantheon of corrupt warden characters, and positioning the patients as flawed but wronged inmates.
Sport for Jove’s new production has a lot going for it. A simple yet impressive set design by Isabel Hudson evokes both the soul-anesthetising blandness of an antiseptic institutional environment, yet is lined with ugly stains and bordered by a trough of filth and rubbish at the footlights, as though to suggest that all the darker problems are being merely swept out of sight rather than truly examined. Director Kim Hardwick gets generally very good performances out of the strong ensemble cast, and the staging is by and large muscular and effective, making good use of the space.
While the eight actors playing the inmate-patients have excellent chemistry and rapport, there are unfortunately some faltering moments elsewhere in the production. At times the scene transitions lag and feel awkward, dissipating the energy of previous moments of tension, while the lacklustre fight choreography by Scott Witt sadly robs moments of violence and physical struggle of their due impact. Other staging choices such as miming the application of electroshock therapy devices amidst an otherwise prop-rich naturalistic staging philosophy seemed puzzling, as was the decision to not have the actors physically react to what the narrative is telling us is a traumatic experience.
Particularly unfortunate is that one of the shortcomings of this production is a rather underwhelming rendition of Nurse Ratched, one of the great female antagonist roles of modern drama. Di Smith’s performance is by no means poor per se, but one cannot escape the fact that on the night something did not quite gel. Whether her own choice was to downplay the character too much, or this resulted from a lack of calibration on the part of the director, the intensity of her performance was out of synch with that of Anthony Gooley as her nemesis McMurphy. To give Smith credit, she resists any temptation to devolve into a mustache-twirling villain, and the impulse to counteract McMurphy’s raucous ebullience with venomous respectability is correct, but her character’s requisite underlying power did not adequately come through in the mix. Rather than be an equal yet opposite force of steely quiet menace, she was upstaged at every turn, her stage presence sadly receding into the background.
By comparison, Gooley is virtually pitch-perfect as McMurphy, injecting the character with the sass and smartarsery that makes him attractive and repellant in almost equal measure, a character you can’t help but like, even as you realise that perhaps you’re not entirely supposed to. The unlikely would-be savior of this group of damaged malcontents, it is a challenging and delicious role which Gooley truly sinks his teeth into. Every bit the leader of the cast that he needs to be, his portrayal of McMurphy is at turns charming, sexist, outrageous, arrogant, kind and deeply funny, with scary moments as well, and laced with genuine pathos. It is an excellent performance from an actor showing considerable dramatic and comedic range of late, in musicals and plays alike.
There are also some very strong performances from Travis Jeffery as Billy Bibbit, the sad-sack Judas allegory of McMurphy’s apostles, Wayne McDaniel as the seemingly mute giant and narrator Chief Bromden, and especialy Tony Poli in the part of Harding, the highly intelligent elder statesman of the patient group. A flamboyant intellectual, Harding has many of the play’s best lines as well as the most engaging character arc of the secondary roles, and Poli brings a considerable credibility to both the vulnerability and dignity of this conflicted disciple.
This is not a perfect production, but it is on the whole quite a strong one, and a rare chance to see a professional local staging of this excellent play. Definitely recommended, despite the caveats.
Sport for Jove Theatre Co and Seymour Centre present
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
by Dale Wasserman
Director Kim Hardwick
Venue: Reginald Theatre | The Seymour Centre, Corner City Rd & Cleveland St Chippendale NSW
Dates: 3 – 19 August 2017
Tickets: $44 – $35
Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com | 02 9351 7940