‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was grounded.
The play ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, is an evocative theatre piece, which poses universal and timeless questions relevant to any audience. Set in the 1960s, the play depicts the power play between the domineering caretakers and rebellious patients of a mental institution and explores the line between sanity and insanity – a line which Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production walks with finesse.
Set in the common room of an asylum, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ explores the disruption of a community when the rebellious and larger-than-life Randle P. McMurphy (Shaun King) is admitted into the ward. McMurphy brings a strong disregard for the petty rules, enforced by the manipulative Nurse Ratched (Cat Shaw), and encourages the rest of the patients to question them too. As McMurphy gains the other patient’s admiration and respect, he begins to further stir the pot and combats Nurse Ratched’s powerful hold, wreaking havoc, which results in tragedy.
Directed by Alex Lanham, this engaging take on the infamous play was both equally comedic and tragic, and the piece did not skim over any details. There were moments of impeccable comedic timing and high energy, which was beautifully contrasted to the softer, emotional moments that brought to the forefront the reality of what the play is really about. The cast presented compelling humanity and their characters’ stories became real and important to the audience.
Lanham’s direction allowed the actors to explore the internal layers of their characters and their levels of insanity without overplaying it as ‘crazy’. Lanham made each individual storyline the focal point of the piece by keeping the blocking simple and static. While this allowed for an interesting character study, the stillness of scenes meant that the overall pace was drawn out and the show lacked energy at times.
Costuming by Brooke Coleman was effective, as each character had their own quirky additions to the base of their white hospital uniform. For example, Scanlon’s (Julian Hobson) blue turtle neck made him appear more child-like and Harding’s (John Boyce) bright red dressing gown meant that he was the alpha of the group. As the show progressed, the characters began to lose their individual costumes pieces as they assimilated to the ward uniform. This highlighted their unity as they banded together as a team, rather than individuals ready to be picked on by Nurse Ratched. It was this clever symbolism that allowed the audience to see the power play between the caretakers and the patients.
The entirety of the play took place in the mental institute’s common room. The utilitarian set, comprised of beige walls, a window to the Nurse’s office and a table surrounded by plastic chairs. It was simple but useful as it provided the perfect landscape for dramatic action to be played out.
Lighting design by David Willis created an effective presentation, which heightened dramatic moments within the play. The spotlight on Chief Bromden as his narration was played as a voice-over made the audience feel as if they were given an insight into his inner thoughts. However, from the balcony seat, the voice-over was difficult to hear. The use of the electric flashing blue lighting when McMurphy underwent electro-therapy was as much a shock to the audience as it was to McMurphy, and it aided the tension.
The highlight of this production was the stellar cast and their authentic performances. Shaun King as Randle P. McMurphy drove the dramatic action with style and finesse. His cheeky and energetic portrayal of the central character was incredibly compelling, and he played out his objectives clearly in every scene. King’s execution of McMurphy’s mannerisms, perfect comedic timing and charisma was a standout.
Cat Shaw’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched was slightly manipulative and menacing. Her stiff body language revealed that while she appeared to be in control, she understood the frailty of the hierarchy she had created and while she wasn’t confident it would hold, she was eager to keep things in order. While Shaw used calm vocals consistently throughout the performance, she could have provided more variation in her tone, which would have led to a more authentic interpretation.
Matthew Nisbet played the narrator of the novel, Chief Bromden. His ominous presence radiated from the corner of the room and was felt throughout the entire performance. Nisbet was the silent observer and his gentle portrayal served as a reminder of the social politics at play. Even though he was physically large, he still felt small and insignificant due to the way he was treated by Nurse Ratched and society.
Artistic Director of Brisbane Arts Theatre, John Boyce, has stepped onstage for his performance as Dale Harding and he managed the humanity of this character well. Boyce’s emotional brevity and detailed interpretation captivated the audience and it was perhaps the most honest part of the show. Harding is both comedic and dramatic, a leader and a follower, and in Boyce’s portrayal, he understood the complexities of his character. It was delightful to watch.
Emile Regano as Billy Bibit, Greg Stiff as Cheswick, Julian Hobson as Scanlon and Oliver Catton as Martini rounded out the cast of the “curable” patients (as they are described in the play). It would have been easy for these characters to appear one-dimensional or have them overplay the “insanity”, however, each character was unique with their own personality. Regano’s Billy was shy and submissive and his stutter was handled well. Stiff as Cheswick was quirky and hilarious. Hobson as Scanlon was always in the moment and was just as creepy as he was likable, and Catton as Martini provided some great humour to the plot, however, his characterisation could have been explored more.
The rest of the cast included John Young, Amelia Slatter, Daniel Baker, David Murdoch, Emma Reynolds and Savina Ivanova. They all showed commitment to their characters and handled the darker themes well.
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is a challenging piece of theatre, which requires a skilled cast. For Brisbane Arts Theatre, their production rose to the occasion, delivering detailed and nuanced performances. While the show was slow in pace, it remained engaging and authentic from beginning to end.
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ performs until Saturday, 20 July 2019. For tickets, visit https://www.artstheatre.com.au/cuckoo