If you have ever sat through a GCSE Art lesson then you have probably come across The Treachery of Images (1928). Rene Magritte’s iconoclastic painting of a pipe takes the form of a perspectival trick; a visual ruse; a crafty unsettling of language and image. ‘This is not a pipe’, reads the inscription below. Despite this apparent incongruity, Magritte’s proposition makes complete sense. Of course, the pipe in the painting is not actually a pipe. You can’t hold it. You can’t stuff it with tobacco. You can’t smoke it. Ceci n’est pas une pipe, indeed.
Unlike the pipe in Magritte’s painting, the oranges in director Matthew Xia’s production are undeniably real. There’s nothing plastic or two-dimensional about them. They’re not pretending to be oranges – they are oranges. They exist. They are tangible. We watch as they’re peeled, eaten, squeezed and tossed into the air. When Bruce (Luke Norris) takes a great big bite out of one in the productions’ closing moments, we see the juices ooze from his mouth and spray onto the floor. On the other hand, the oranges in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange are not really oranges’ at all. They’re also stage props; figurative material; symbolic matter to be interpreted, transformed and given new meanings through performance.
For Christopher, it makes complete sense that the oranges he holds in his hands are bright blue. To Bruce, his doctor, this is evidence of Christopher’s BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and delusional state of mind. Meanwhile, for Robert – Bruce’s mentor and senior consultant – the ‘blue orange’ is a conundrum to be solved in his ongoing efforts to release Christopher back into his ‘community’. The oranges become distorted through language. Meaning gets projected onto them. Significance is imposed. They become metaphors, pulsing with ideas and teeming with contradictory meanings. Ceci n’est pas une orange…
The idea of borders – both real and imaginary – slice through Matthew Xia’s production. Daniel Kaluyaa embodies Christopher as a young man very much teetering on the brink of emotional and psychological collapse, lurching from one extreme of behaviour to another. One moment, he’s doubled over in a fit of nervous giggles, the next he’s seething with rage. For Bruce and Robert, who hover always on the knife-edge of collegiate respect and simmering resentment, their relationship threatens always to tip over into all out war as they battle it out in a war of words for control of Christopher’s fate.
Jeremy Herbert’s design establishes the idea of collapsing boundaries. The audience is led through a Young Vic auditorium that has been transformed into the whitewashed, strip-lit corridor of a modern, NHS psychiatric ward. It’s a kind of dramatic post-mortem; orange peel is scattered across the floor, paper has been torn up and strewn about like confetti, a bin overflows with crushed, plastic cups. When we enter the theatre, the same set has been duplicated on an elevated stage, surrounded by a border zone in which Christopher paces back and forth.
While borders blur and meaning’s shift, language itself becomes a minefield. Words are not weapons, they are booby-traps: say the wrong thing and the situation might blow up in your face. For Christopher, it could mean the difference between going home or remaining in a psychiatric unit. For Bruce and Robert, it’s a shaky foundation built on fear of institutional reprisals and naked careerism. Each spin a complex web of half-truths and fallacious theories in an attempt to press their case. Signals get crossed. Meanings are misinterpreted. Communication is lost in translation. Soon, truth becomes hostage to power and Bruce, Robert and Christopher are caught up in a miasma of mixed messages.
David Haig’s Robert is a verbal gunslinger. Loquacious, overfamiliar and verbose to a fault, he harnesses language in order to control the conversation. Always quick off the mark with a felicitous phrase or pin-sharp riposte, Robert unloads on Bruce with a hefty arsenal of sound bites, jargon and liberal-sounding platitudes. His parlance is a lethal cocktail of officialspeak and new-age thinking. He clobbers Bruce with worthy insights into ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘ethnocentricity’ and bamboozles Christopher with bureaucratic doublethink and syrupy, patrician concern. Every word dripping with barely veiled condescension and smug self-regard.
At first, Luke Norris’ Bruce appears to be a suitably straightforward foil to Haig’s devious, spinning Robert; unassuming, principled, middle-of-the-road, he strikes an undeniable rapport with Christopher, his quiet suspicion of Robert’s underlying motivations very much in tune with our own. We want to trust him. But he too is implicated. The ease with which Bruce slips back and forth between friendly chitchat and clinical detachment, vacillating between light banter and stern reproaches, betrays his manipulative instincts.
But Blue/Orange is as much an examination on the internal dynamics of institutional racism, as it is a dissection of language and power. Christopher’s ‘blackness’ lands him in an impossible, Catch-22 situation. It renders him invisible to the society at large, while defining his every word and action as a psychiatric patient. Bruce refuses to engage with questions of race, and in doing so, arrogantly refutes any possibility of institutional bias. Robert, on the other hand, wants Christopher gone. They simply don’t have the beds available, he explains to Bruce, and so resorts to verbal gymnastics in order to press his case. Neither have the answer to Christopher’s ills.
Blue/Orange was first performed at the National Theatre in 2000, four years after the election of Tony Blair’s spin-savvy New Labour government and three years before dodgy dossiers and the Iraq War. Now, more than a decade later, Matthew Xia’s astute production resonates in these post-truth times; a time in which language is hostage to power and audacious liars, armed with an arsenal of choice phrases and powerful connections, can trump ordinary truth-tellers.
Blue/Orange is on until 2nd July 2016 at the Young Vic. Click here for tickets.