ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, Sport for Jove at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, 3-19 August 2017. Photography by Marnya Rothe - above Wayne McDaniel and Anthony Gooley; below - Stephen Madsen, Wendy Strehlow and Travis Jeffery; below again: Di Smith and Tony Poli
It’s not surprising that this adaptation, by Dale Wasserman, of Ken Kesey’s legendary 1962 novel has popped up on Australian stages in the same time frame as another fabled dystopian classic, 1984. Both lend themselves to the current climate of a world of creeping totalitarianism; both are easy nods to what ails us, politically and socially; both fulfil the dog-eared paperback needs of hipster chic.
What is surprising, however, is how anaemic the two productions are given their similar arcs of one man against the machine and the unspeakable horrors inflicted on him in the name of order. But where 1984’s Winston Smith is a gloomy clerical worker in a government institution, Randle P McMurphy in the Cuckoo’s Nest is a rambunctious petty crim who’s taken the option of time in an asylum rather than hard labour on a prison farm. The two exist – rather than live – under the all-seeing eye of Big Brother in the former, and Nurse Ratched in the latter, and a happy ending cannot be anticipated.
To be expected from both plays, nevertheless, is an uncommon degree of tension and fright as extreme authority is exerted on the unwilling and the helpless while legalised torture (electroconvulsive therapy) is meted out to anyone who resists; but it doesn't happen: there is virtully no stress in either – particularly in the similar "torture' scenes. And that, after its (short-lived) Broadway debut ,being said of Cuckoo's Nest, by The New York Times, that it was “scarifying and powerful” – according to Sport for Jove’s show blurb, which then goes on to list the multiple Oscars success of the 1975 Jack Nicholson movie. Which is irrelevant to this production, by the way and a rather ordinary bid for credibility.
Enough of comparisons: 1984 at least has some political interest in 2017, but it’s hard to see any for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest which is revealed as hopelessly dated on the one hand and painfully sexist and misogynist on the other. Painful because, being of its time and authoring, those two qualities are unconscious and innate and therefore there’s damn all a 21st director can do to either undermine or overturn their nastiness.
In essence, everything bad that happens to the inmates of the men’s ward is perpetrated by women: their mothers or wives were responsible for their various ailments and now, they are terrorised by the evil-eyed Nurse Ratched – a thankless role for Di Smith in her much-anticipated return to the stage. And, lest one forget the place of women in society of the late 50s-early 60s, the “good” girls are represented by a couple of prostitutes with hearts of gold and vaginas to match.
The central figure of McMurphy is in the usually capable hands of Anthony Gooley, but it would seem he’s been cast because of a passing resemblance to Jack Nicholson. What isn’t present is Nicholson’s personal aura of danger: he is a man you can easily imagine going after Shelley Duvall with a chopper and as the hyper-tormentor of Nurse Ratched. Gooley doesn’t have that quality, thank god, so he is a sympathetic rather than disturbing figure: interesting, but it doesn’t help this already unbalanced production.
Part of that unbalance is in the rest of the casting, which is uneven. While it’s a pleasing eyeful to have a cast of more than a dozen on stage, it’s jarring that the performances range from realistic and excellent (newcomer Travis Jeffery as the stammering virgin Billy Bibbit and Tony Poli as reluctantly effete Dale Harding) to cartoonish (Johann Walraven as the ward doctor in absurd short trousers and an unlikely simper).
Most impressive are the characters of the permanently furious Cheswick (Wendy Strehlow) and Chief Bromden (Wayne McDaniel). He frames the stage play as narrator and is said to be a “giant” part-Native American and ostensibly deaf and mute, but has the play’s most poetic lines. In other ways, though, it’s as if the many caricatures who pass for characters – catatonia, persistent shrieking and spluttering Tourette’s – are in different plays and it’s hard to work out what director Kim Hardwick was thinking.
On the one hand, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (a line from a nursery rhyme in case you’ve forgotten or never knew) is a quaint period piece, and on the other, it’s offensive as only a period piece can be. This is possibly more obvious in a city that gave us the ridiculous, murderous reality of Chelmsford at one end of the mental health story, and Louis Nowra’s Cosi at the sublime other.
Meanwhile, it can be said that this production has little going for it other than an elegant set of hanging clear plastic strips that simultaneously mirror and distort, reveal and conceal (designer Isabel Hudson) and carefully apposite lighting by Martin Kinnane that works well with the single tall box setting. Steve Francis supplies a jolly opening soundtrack that cleverly augurs badly for what follows and is expanded as the action progresses.
The play has recently been staged independently at the MTC's Lawler Theatre in Melbourne where it ran at two hours plus interval. Here it has been cut to 100 minutes-no interval, which is wise as it prevents a mass audience exodus midway through. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest gives nostalgia an even worse name than usual and has little to recommend it.