When Ken Kesey’s novel was first staged in 1963, he told its adapter, Dale Wasserman, that his book would be all but forgotten without the play. That turned out not to be the case: it was the 1975 film (which Kesey opposed and refused to watch) that immortalised the story of renegade criminal Randle P McMurphy, his nemesis Nurse Ratched and the state-sanctioned tyrannies of the American psychiatric system in the 1960s.
Javaad Alipoor, the director of this latest revival, attempts to steal the story out of the shadows of that film by staging Wasserman’s play with unapologetic purism. The narrator, Chief Bromden, is reinstated as a prominent character, magnetically played by the part-Anishinaabe actor Jeremy Proulx, whose lumbering presence is set against the poetic vulnerability in his monologues. McMurphy’s predatory view of women – which the film allows us to forget and forgive – is also laid bare: here, he is not just anti-authority but volubly anti-women, excusing himself for raping a 15-year-old girl (she lied about her age, he claims). This gains resonance in the wake of #MeToo but the production feels oddly tame: its anarchic humour is tepid and the glowering, antiestablishment rage of Kesey’s novel is lost.
Part of the problem may be the production’s faithfulness to the original adaptation, which came at an incendiary moment in psychiatry in the light of works by RD Laing and Michel Foucault, who critiqued its oppressive systems of control. This feels dated in the context of modern debates in mental health.
Lucy Osborne’s design is the show’s biggest success: the set has an eerily clinical spareness, just tables, chairs and a cleverly constructed light-box on one side of the stage that gives the nurses an ominous silhouette, while Lewis Gibson’s jittery soundscape infuses the production with intensity.
Proulx gives the standout performance, while Jack Tarlton is convincing as the sexually inadequate husband Harding, and so is Arthur Hughes as the stuttering virgin Billy. Jenny Livsey stepped in to play Ratched at the last minute after Lucy Black sustained an injury and withdrew and she warms to her part as the “juggernaut of matriarchy”. Joel Gillman plays McMurphy with a puckish energy reminiscent – perhaps too reminiscent – of Jack Nicholson: it is there in the pitch and tone of his delivery and even the hat and hairline. The result is that Gillman’s McMurphy pales by association.
Despite some strong performances, the ensemble lacks the chemistry to create enough of an emotional disturbance as Ratched rounds on the ward, quashing rebellion by ultimately quashing McMurphy. There is better synergy between the actors in the second part: a Darwinian sense of the jungle emerges as the weak are swallowed up by the system. The production gains a sense of menace but the teeth-baring comes a little too late.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is at the Crucible, Sheffield, until 23 June. Box office: 0114 249 6000.