One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Brisbane Arts Theatre
June 22 – July 22
“This world… belongs to the strong, my friend! The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak,” Harding tells anti-authoritarian protagonist Randle McMurphy in attempted explanation of how powerless they are as patients in a mental institution in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
It is a signpost to the universal theme of institutionalised control vs human dignity that runs throughout the story of what happens when rebellious convict Randle P McMurphy (Shaun King) has himself transferred for evaluation from a prison farm to a mental institution assuming it will be a less restrictive environment. While many of the patients are there voluntarily because they find freedom in its confinement, McMurphy is provoked by the captivity into a battle of wills with the inflexible, stiff and starched Nurse Ratched (Cat Shaw), which soon affects all the ward’s patients.
Ken Kesey’s legendary 1962 novel is a classic of literature, subsequently made, in 1975, into a now-classic film and winner of all five major Academy Awards. Many years after university study of the text as part of an American Literature 101 type unit, all I could recall in terms of its detail is character-based…. Jack Nicholson’s defining film portrayal of recidivist criminal McMurphy, the half-Native American long-term resident Chief Bromden whose childhood tongue-twisting Mother Goose nursery rhyme memory gives the story its allegorical title, and the infamous Nurse Ratched. And Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production only serves as reminder why.
The play’s main characters are distinctly drawn and well-realised by their performers. Shaw is excellent as the quietly-tyrannous, rigid Nurse Ratched, feared by patients and even some of the institution’s employees. The steely smiling assassin role would be an easy one to overplay, but her build of passive aggressive intimidation is perfectly pitched to engage audience frustration; there is something so cooly impersonal in her detached manner that we find ourselves forced into judgment of her.
King makes the easy-going McMurphy so charismatic that the audience almost forgets that the reason he ended up in prison in the first place was the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl (which he declares preposterous, given that his victim lied about her age and initiated the sexual interlude). He is a big character, but one to which King’s resilient, multi-layered performance does justice in his transition to leader of sorts, testing hospital regulations to the limits and pushing others to rediscover their potential. Still, his performance allows room for members of the ensemble to also shine.
Emile Regano brings a palpable vulnerability to the repressed and fearful Billy, not only through the character’s pronounced stutter but his initially reluctance but ultimate susceptibility to Ratched’s manipulations. And John Boyce adds emotional resonance to the role of the ward’s patriarch, Dale Harding, McMurphy’s most ardent supporter. Not only does he play a key part in defending him against Ratched’s assertion that McMurphy acts only out of self-interest, but he highlights to the audience the commonality of the patients’ experiences as victims of a matriarchy. (Everything bad that happens to the inmates is perpetrated by women: their mothers, wives and now, Nurse Ratched.) Others round out the group, each of whom have individual idiosyncrasies that allow for some of the show’s humour.
Act Two features less laughs as the story takes to its tragic climax and moving resolution. Though the action may be at-time chaotic, especially when, after bribing a night guard, McMurphy sneaks two women into the ward, for a night of partying, the stark set remains relatively static throughout the entire show. This seems entirely appropriate though for a show whose character is so much about its performances…. no big bangs and whistles, but just good theatre done well, which makes for an absorbing audience experience from start to finish.