In an age where our TV stations make us choose the same pop star year after year, our magazines tell us to look and dress a certain way and where we’re allowed to be individual, just as long as it’s the same as everyone else, a story of controlling regimes churning out homogenised human beings is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s when the novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was written.
An institution that has the right to issue shock therapy or lobotomies as both therapy and punishment is a powerful setting for an allegory of individuality against the system. Here we meet the inmates like Bradly Rhys Williams’ Harding that fall short of society’s expectations have submitted themselves willingly to ‘correction’ while others like Dwayne Washington’s native American Chief Bromden are being crushed forcefully into compliance.
But when the iconoclastic Randle P McMurphy (Sean Buchanan) enters the fray that system starts to buckle as he teaches the patients to discover their own strengths beyond the narrow framework set by the domineering Nurse Rached (Annabel Capper) and her hoard of orderlies. Whether he is acting out of altruism, greed or his own brand of exploitation, we never quite know for sure.
Now let me confess right here and now- I have never seen the film nor read the book. So shoot me. It does however allow me to judge this play on its own merits.
And it has merits aplenty including one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a long time with everyone pulling in the same direction and not one of them pulling focus. This confident and effective kind of performance allows the audience to spot each actor individually, not least in the first patient group meeting where each character is on show and you instantly see their individual quirks, ticks and neuroses. It’s a credit to each actor that a lot of homework has been done here and it’s very gratifying to see, particularly Bobby Bulloch as the lobotomised Ruckly who stumbles and dribbles his way through the show barely uttering a single word.
Buchanan as the lead role oozes charisma but doesn’t steal the show, generous and confident enough to not overshadow his fellow cast members. Even for a cultural ignoramus such as myself, it’s hard not to compare him to Jack Nicholson and whether consciously or not there are twinkles of Big Jack whenever Mr Buchanan talks through his gritted smile. He manages to be more likeable however than dangerous and even though we’re constantly reminded of his potential violence, it’s shocking when it does actually come to the fore before being swiftly curtailed.
More than adequately playing his nemesis Nurse Ratched is the wonderful Annabel Capper, all seething self control and steely composure, channelling Kathryn Hepburn and Kathleen Turner in equal measure. Quite how this prim and proper nurse can still ooze a burning sexuality is down to the skill of this fabulous actress. She and Buchanan spark off each other perfectly, creating a battle of titans where she has all the power and certainly deals the final blow but we are left in no doubt that she is scarred and wounded by the conflict.
McMurphy’s shocking fate notwithstanding, the play ends on an upbeat hopeful note that maybe you can beat the system after all.
Paul Taylor Mills’ direction is crisp and precise, with not a single beat missed and use of projection that thankfully isn’t gimmicky or intrusive and in fact adds to the story telling with some wonderfully evocative animation.
David Shields has done an amazing job on the staging, recreating a very credible hospital setting with far more detailing that one would expect outside of the National Theatre and no doubt with a far smaller budget. This could have been lifted from a film set. Only the fading edges melting into a dark sky of origami paper birds remind us that this place is just fantasy.
The birds incidentally match the ones flying across our programs and fliers. This is one coherent production from start to finish. Apart from a couple of dips in the American accents here and there Paul Taylor Mills and Amy Anzell have created something very slick and polished.
Whether this production has managed to distinguish itself and do something original beyond the iconic movie is up to other audience members to decide. For this viewer, it was highly professional, utterly relevant and a pleasure to experience.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST by Dale Wasserman
7.30pm until 31st March