Ken Kesey’s notorious novel was recently brought to life in The Acting Company’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While the play did not have the same level of complexity and character depth that the book possesses, the production nonetheless kept its distinctive oppressive feel.
This production was held in The Courtyard Studio, a smaller, more informal venue than the Canberra Theatre, which is located right next door. The director was Tom O’Neill. The cast members were largely Canberra-based, many of the products of Narrabundah College drama courses.
The entire play took place on a set that showed the stark main ward of a mental hospital, complete with a nurse’s window near the front of the stage. In this respect it was different to the novel, which occasionally allows the reader to step outside of the boundaries of the mental hospital, relieving the dramatic tension that builds up as the conflict increases between the protagonist, Randle P. McMurphy, and the main antagonist, ice-cold Nurse Ratched. The production was organised in such a way that the tension built consistently, making the final confrontations even more intense. Given that the play clearly did have to cut sections out of the novel, for purely practical reasons if nothing else (try fitting a fishing trip on to a stage), it was handled well.
One of the real strengths of the play was the ability of even the more minor actors in the production. Right from the opening scene, in which a shuffling crew of mentally ill patients wandered around the stage, each actor did a fabulous job of maintaining the tics and idiosyncrasies of their particular character. Each of the characters was portrayed very memorably, if not especially realistically. While this did serve to provide some unexpected comic relief, it did sometimes feel as if the relentless exaggeration of characters took away some of the subtlety that the book possesses. The characters were explored far less on stage than they are in the novel. Many of them seemed unnecessarily extreme. Harding, for instance, was hard to take seriously at first. In the book, Harding’s repressed homosexuality is only hinted at – here, though, it was made immediately clear, both through direct reference to it and the actor’s many effete hand gestures. It is worth noting that Harding’s occasional bursts of emotion were even more effective when contrasted with his otherwise measured and, often, effeminate behaviour. However, his gestures seemed to verge on parody at points, and were quite distracting.
The one instance of a slightly less exaggerated character was Barb Barnett’s interesting take on Nurse Ratched. In the film and the novel, Nurse Ratched’s intimidating, machine-like presence is made very clear right from the beginning. The play, however, introduced the harshness of her character slowly. It is only when she begins to really sink her claws into the damaged men she works with that the viewer can see the extent of her intense callousness. Barnett managed to balance the façade of kindliness with a slow reveal of a vicious and mechanical nature. The development of her character was riveting to watch.
Ben Drysdale as Randle P. McMurphy certainly captured the manic carelessness of the character. While there wasn’t anything especially novel about his portrayal – his McMurphy was indistinguishable from Jack Nicholson’s in the 1975 film – he carried off the character well. The portrayal of Chief Bromden, the story’s narrator, was especially good. Given that the character spends much of the novel pretending to be entirely dumb, conveying his narration could have presented difficulties. However, this was dealt with in quite an innovative way – when the narration was given, the action on stage froze, and a younger version of Chief Bromden appeared to exchange lines with the current version. While this sounds strange when written down, it worked very well on stage, and was one of the more memorable parts of the performance.
This was an excellent and entertaining adaption of a novel that I had originally thought would be incredibly hard to adapt to stage. Certainly, parts of the novel had to be sacrificed for practical reasons, at the expense of the novel’s complexity. The characters also felt far more exaggerated than they were in Ken Kesey’s original story. Ultimately, this production stayed true to the story while incorporating its own innovative touches, and was well worth seeing.