Theatre in Wales

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Great Ensemble Production

At the Torch

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest- Torch Theatre , Torch Theatre , October-18-17
At the Torch by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest- Torch Theatre Dale Wasserman's stage version of Ken Kesey's novel has been a regular in the repertoire since its first appearance in 1963. The first Randle P McMurphy was Kirk Douglas. When Chicago's Steppenwolf did it Gary Sinise took the part. In London a few years on Christian Slater was the state mental hospital rebel with Theatr Clwyd's Tamara Harvey at the directorial helm. Michael Billington's verdict in 2007 was “comic-book propaganda rather than real art.”

That “real art” is tricky territory. Decent theatre is both immediate action and metaphor. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” is metaphor for any totalitarian system. McMurphy's self-description is as “the top man in every situation.” He has managed the transition from prison-farm in hope of an easier life. That is one kind of a total system, the focus of Foucault, and the hospital is another. Theatrically the play is on a spectrum, albeit with a deeper texture, that runs from “the Brig” to “Cleansed.”

As in all such systems the order that sustains it is brittle-thin. The minutest wavering in the rules threatens the whole. In this year of commemorating the Reformation it was a sheet of paper on a cathedral door that undid the great papal edifice. In Kesey's fiction a rule as minor as a decision over watching the World Series threatens.

Propaganda it is not; it is observation. It is observation too that a degree of consent is required for the system to sustain himself. “A veritable angel of mercy” says Hardin of their implacable controller. A second act turning-point occurs when McMurphy, committed to the ward, discovers his fellow patients to be self-admitted.

Sam Fuller's film “Shock Corridor”, also of 1963, has a similar plot of an outsider in a psychiatric hospital. Whereas the film's colours are grainy-dark Peter Doran's production presents a dystopia in brilliant white. Sean Crowley's set of institutional doors, tiles and bars are in white and cream. Staff and patients alike are in spotless white. The colours that jar are from the outside, Richard Nichols' McMurphy in a black leather jacket, Miriam O'Brien's Candy in scarlet.

A company of thirteen is not a regular sight on any stage now. But the Torch has reached its fortieth year. From Judi Dench “congratulations to you all on running it so successfully...I am proud to be a patron of such a company.” The tributes are many and include Lee Mengo, Christian Patterson, Mike Doyle. It is a return to the show for the company. Previously it has earned ovations and awards and its return for a fourth time is in line with audience wishes.

Jenny Livsey's Nurse Ratched may greet a new arrival with a smile and a handshake but it is a mask for the quiet ice of authority. Dave Ainsworth is lobotomised patient Ruckly with his single line of “f*** them all.” Liam Tobin is the intellectual leader Harding. Will Taylor is Billy Bibbit, the youngster of depthless pain. Rhodri Sion and Dion Davies are Martini and Cheswick, long-standing inmates with their sense of self-belief long hollowed-out. The method is to extract private anguish and expose it to public scrutiny in the name of treatment. Andy Creswell is the stoic Chief and Peter Doran is Scanlon with his home-made bomb perpetually in his lap. Authority, bereft of sympathy, is represented by Connor Allen and Oraine Johnson as Warren and Williams.

The meanings that art unveils mutate. One of the events of 2017 has been the demise in regard for Big Tech. Lunchtime radio on the journey over the Preselis carried a report on phone usage and its impact on mental health. One of the lines that the Chief has in describing the forces that demonise him is “they got a network clean across the land.” Dale Wasserman died in 2008 at the age of ninety-four. He could never have guessed the accrued meaning in the words he penned.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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