I’m not just talking about one person, I’m talking about everybody. I’m talking about form. I’m talking about content. I’m talking about interrelationships. I’m talking about God, the devil, Hell, Heaven. Do you understand… FINALLY?”
Ken Kesey’s wildly provocative, fearlessly brutal construction of Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital is a far cry from Exeter’s tranquillity, and an ambitious play choice by directors Devon Cairns and Lucy Green. Yet, like the hum of machinery haunting the patients trapped in an institution where Nurse Ratched’s passive aggressive domination dictates that those who do not conform are insane, a stirring theatrical protest has been getting underway in EUTCo’s rehearsals for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Kesey’s novel presents a number of challenges for stage adaptation: what to do about the chilling narration of deaf and dumb native American Chief Bromden; how to portray the erratic inimitatable nervous tendencies of patients suffering from delusions, identity crisis or psychosis? But as the run-through began, something marvellous unfolded: Bromden opens with a chilling, disorientating dramatic monologue that drags us into the dark and subversive world on stage. The exhibition of mental illness is masterful from the start: Billie Bibbit’s uncontainable stutter, Harding’s religious fervour and the mesmerising physicality of the empty space, somehow cluttered by hallucinatory beings, give the play an uncanny sense of authenticity. When in bowls big-hearted open-handed McMurphy – a dynamic social outsider, possibly feigning psychosis to escape the drudgery of the work farm – it’s hard not to get swept up in spirit of revolution and power-to-the-patients McMurphy seems to bring with him. In one glorious scene, McMurphy gathers patients to watch a football game, and even when Ratched abruptly cuts out the TV, McMurphy has the ward cheering riotously to prove no tyrannical Nurse or pointless rule can deprive them of a good time. But when McMurphy learns of his indeterminate future on the ward, passionate outbursts of lust and gambling morph into empty acts of despair and powerlessness.
Enthralled by the harrowing performance, it was easy enough to overlook the rugged space of Roborough Studios, the absence of props, the rawness of unfinished sound effects. But add the impressive Northcott Theatre staging, stylised costuming, stirring sound effects and the voyeuristic experience of watching the brutal truths of inside a psychiatric ward from the privileged position of an audience-member to the theatrical brilliance displayed in rehearsal, and the performances from the 18th-21st February are sure to be outstanding.