Most people will be familiar with ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ through the iconic 1975 film that won five Oscars. The story was originally a novel by Ken Kesey and then a stage play by Dale Wasserman.
The first Broadway production featured Kirk Douglas and Gene Wilder. Sport For Jove’s adaptation at the Seymour Centre proves to be just as dark and disturbing as these original sources.
The play is one that sees a career criminal named Randle P. McMurphy (Anthony Gooley) opt for a stay at a mental institution rather than serve a prison sentence. This energetic guy is a loose cannon, though you probably didn’t need to be told that when you consider that his initials are R.P.M. This character is the kind of hustler who thinks his stint in hospital will be little more than a mere walk in the park. But he’s proven wrong.
McMurphy meets his match in the matronly Nurse (Di Smith, 'A Country Practice') Ratched, an authority figure who runs a tight ship. The pair frequently clash over their wits, ideals and just about everything else. She’s a real dark horse in that she seems well-meaning at times but at other moments is rather heavy-handed and evil. Both Smith and Gooley share an interesting dynamic and Gooley does an excellent job of capturing the roguish charm of McMurphy.
The other patients at this hospital include the “curables” and the “chronics.” The latter group includes the recipient of a botched lobotomy, Ruckley (Stephen Madsen who will appear in 'Muriel’s Wedding' in December) and Chief Bromden (Wayne McDaniel) who is presumed to be deaf and dumb because he hasn’t spoken a word in decades. McDaniel is quite a presence and is especially intense when McMurphy comes to learn the man’s story. The book is told from the Chief’s perspective but here, his inner monologue is revealed during the scene changes.
The patients who are curable are more of the conformist variety who are generally there of their own volition. They are ably played by Joshua McElroy, Laurence Coy, Tony Poli, Travis Jeffrey and Wendy Strehlow. McMurphy has the biggest effect on these individuals because of his propensity to rebel and shake things up. This is because it’s completely at odds with what they’ve come to know, expect and enjoy from life inside this institution.
The set by Isabelle Hudson plays an important role here at making things feel authentic. There is a thin plastic, three-sided wall that hems the patients and staff (Matilda Brodie, Nick Rowe, Patrick Cullen and Johann Walraven) in at this hospital. The lighting by Martin Kinnane can be quite stark at times with the fluorescent tubing reminiscent of a clinical setting. The costumes – also by Hudson – remind me of the Stamford Prison experiment because over the course of the play as McMurphy comes to learn and empathise with the other patients, it’s like he becomes one of them.
This play is ultimately a faithful rendering that is directed by Kim Hardwick. Steve Francis’ work on the sound is also good and finds a nice balance between the lightness and darkness of the material. When McMurphy sings 'The Roving Gambler' you can see why he’s such a hard man to pin down and how he came to be here, even though his crime – at least by his own admission – was a penchant for “fighting and f**king”.
'One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest' is a fascinating play that reminds us about how society is capable of treating those with mental illness or any other individual branded an “outsider.” The story is a relevant one that deftly blends comedic moments with darker plot points and some uncomfortable truths. In lesser hands this could have been a bitter pill to swallow but here it will leave you thinking about the system of oppression and how it rears its ugly head. Sobering.