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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Photo by by Marnya Rothe

Sport For Jove and the Seymour Centre present, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, by Dale Wasserman, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale. August 3 – 19, 2017.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is best known as the Academy Award laden Milos Forman film, made in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The essential core of the work is the battle between the Dionysian spirit with the formally controlled world that permits it to function for the supposed ‘greater good’. Knowing that It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer’s 1964 film) the metaphor of having this ‘battle’ take place in an asylum seems reasonable – after all, this literary view of the world goes as far back as Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean comedy/drama A MAD, MAD WORLD performed in 1605, and even before, perhaps, to Euripides and his THE BACCHAE, written in C.405BC.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST began as a novel written in 1962 by counter culture ‘warrior’ Ken Kesey, who saw himself as a conduit of revolution against the confines of the values of Eisenhower America, beginning with the 50’s beat generation-beatniks to the 60’s hippie sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll culture. The novel was then, contextually, a necessary cultural hit and was adapted for the theatre in 1963 by Dale Wasserman and, too, became a success for Broadway audiences. The message of the play struck the bells of alarum for the awakened to rise up and set the spirit free – they tried. That they have failed and passed the ‘torch’ to the next generation even to our children’s generation and our social media infested correctness, is why this play is still a relevant archaeological wonder. That the original stage McMurphy was Kirk Douglas and that it followed his rebel Spartacus attempting to counter the Roman cultural straight-jacket, in the Kubrick film, tells us that this figure of counter culture was, is, and always will be a re-generating icon.

Kim Hardwick, the Director, has given the play a production of some respectful gravitas and, mostly, circumvents the now dated conventions of the writing. There is always a delicate path that artists must take when creating ‘mad’ people in a ‘madhouse’ and this company of actors have found a level of restraint that keeps the focus of the thesis of the writing free and clear. It is not a comic ‘grotesque’ of zoological – Charenton (MARAT/SADE) – watching.

Anthony Gooley, as McMurphy, gives a performance of surety of character and of a knowledgeable storytelling arc development and is matched by the subtle drawing of Nurse Ratched by Di Smith, who creates a woman of deep belief in what she is doing without stepping into the emasculating terror that we recall from the Forman film – these two performances gives some balance to the two positions of the protagonists with graduating intensity and focus.

There is good support work from Travis Jeffery (Billy Bibbit), Laurence Coy (Scanlon) and Wendy Strehlow (Cheswick). Staged with care the ‘choreography’ of the work is masterfully managed by Ms Hardwick, but it is in the ‘orchestration’ of the voices, the music of the writing – the pitch, volume and especially energy of the vocal work – where the production more often than it should drifts into theatrical doldrums. A large ensemble of 15 actors still have not all found the right performance orchestration entries to keep the work in developing momentum to quicken the pulse of the audience to a delirious immersion. This is where the innate sensibility of Mr Gooley comes, especially, to the fore, but he cannot drag the whole shebang forward by himself, nor can the other few tuned instruments cover with him – all the 15 must be attentive and alert to the music of the Wasserman storytelling. This may right itself as the season proceeds.

True to her usual aesthetic sensibilities, Ms Hardwick has created with Set Designer, Isabel Hudson, a ‘beautiful’ contemporary solution for the play. A raised, slightly raked stage of large blocks of white toned floor, surrounded by opaque plastic sheets, that fall to reveal a mirrored back wall at the play’s end is spectacularly lit by Martin Kinnane in a Lighting Design of much complexity and theatrical intelligence. Too, Steve Francis with his Sound Design and Composition creates tension and a magical ‘envelope’ to serve the drama of the spiritual elements of the story.

This production of ONCE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is a curate’s egg – an event that is good and bad in parts, and may leave you with mixed feelings of satisfaction. I was surprised that I had found the play still interesting and recognised the age old but true statement of the play, importantly appealing (I never liked the film much), or was it the performance of Mr Gooley that kept me in the work, it is certainly, for me, the best work he has given since his famous turn in THE LIBERTINE of a few years ago – though he is never less than good in whatever he tackles.

N.B. That Sport For Jove did not acknowledge the playwright, Dale Wasserman, ANYWHERE in their program. An oversight, that I believe was corrected when informed, but that the Writer’s history is not presented in the program, is a, relatively, consistent Sydney Theatre  ‘habit’. Without the writer there is no play, no nothing in the theatre! And after all, Dale Wasserman, is no slouch in Broadway history, it was he who wrote the Book for the musical, THE MAN OF LA MANCHA, in 1966.