Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a world-famous cult classic. Dated yet nonetheless beloved adaptations explore themes of masculinity, authority, the fight between rebellion and conformity, and introspection of the mind.
Using American playwright Dale Wasserman’s original text from the 1963 dramatisation that made Broadway, the production rarely deviates from the original storyline. Randle P McMurphy (Joel Gillman), a brash convict serving time for rape, lands himself in Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital under evaluation. Used to the dynamics of the prison work farm, and surrounded by easily influenced acute and chronic patients, McMurphy begins to upset the strict hospital regime by seeking liberation. Intolerant Nurse Ratched (Jenny Livsey) resists McMurphy’s strong will to breakdown order in the ward, pressing for extreme measures such as electroshock therapy and eventually lobotomy to control McMurphy.
A vibrant, credible performance by all cast members is the salient strength of this production, crediting excellent casting and direction as well as the array of talent showcased by each performer. Yet Gillman’s energetic performance, which portrays excellently the true essence of McMurphy, steals the show almost perpetually. Credit also goes to Arthur Hughes; whose stunning portrayal of acute patient Billy Bibbit hooked the audience with every line he delivered. A notable mention must also go to Livesey’s performance. She had only performed as Nurse Ratched once prior to opening night, having been called in due to unforeseen injury of original actress Lucy Black. Expecting a jarred, script-in-hand performance, Livsey impressed, performing boldly and convincingly.
At first impressions, the minimalist set design was underwhelming. Yet the moment the cast emerged and the chaos commenced, the audience was transported into the midst of Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital.
Sound and selective lighting worked together to cleverly draw attention to minor aspects of the set, illustrating the background workings of the ward that the patients are oblivious to. They created excellent opportunities for the audience to think and feel. Intense strobe lighting frightfully encapsulated a fraction of the pain presumably endured from electroshock therapy. Similarly, as Tammy Wynette’s 1968 hit Stand By Your Man played as the final scene closed, the audience were encouraged to reflect on the deeper meanings of the relationships between the characters. The subtlety of these moments explain exactly why this performance was so special.
What became apparent was how far society has progressed, as 1960s misogyny within the text felt forced in delivery. Additionally, the reservation of men when discussing mental illness, and the consequences of this, was brought to light. This new adaptation is timely, with the prevalence of mental illness on the rise since 1990.
Despite heavy themes, Wasserman’s script does not shy away from moments of light-hearted humour. Succeeding in illustrating the juxtaposing emotions elicited by patients, this production leaves the audience with heavy hearts and forces reflection on the often uncomfortable matter of treatment of mental illnesses and the conventional idea of normality.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an impressive, thought-provoking and ever relevant take on this classic story. It takes often unspoken of themes, brings them to life and pushes them to the forefront of your mind. It reaffirms the unwavering love for Kesey’s novel by presenting its story to a fresh generation. Without a doubt this adaptation is apt in modern day society, and a must see by those who wish to think more deeply about the battle facing those with mental illnesses and all that it encompasses.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is playing at the Crucible until 23rd June. For more information: https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest
Images: Crucible Theatre