The show, as the old adage puts it, must go on. And nowhere has that old showbiz cliché been more put to the test than at the Sheffield Crucible in recent days. On Sunday, preparations for Javaad Alipoor’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were thrown into chaos when Lucy Black, due to play Nurse Ratched, suffered an injury and had to pull out of the production.
Jenny Livsey stepped into the role, travelling up to Sheffield the day before press night, performing in one preview reading from script, and then doing the same on the official opening night. Considering Livesey had less than 48 hours preparation for a major role, it’s an astonishing performance, especially given she barely glanced at the script (disguised as a clipboard or bundle of papers) during the most dramatic monologues.
No doubt it was a problem that Alipoor could have done without, as producing a stage version of Ken Kesey’s novel is fraught with its own problems. Given how iconic Milos Foreman’s production has become, and especially Jack Nicholson’s performance as RP McMurphy, comparisons are inevitable. Kesey famously hated Foreman’s vision, and Alipoor’s rendition seems to be closer to the original source material.
As McMurphy, Joel Gilman has an unenviable task. Not only does he have to avoid slipping into a Nicholson impression (a task he pretty much achieves), it also has to be borne in mind that this character is far from the loveable scamp of legend. McMurphy is, lest we forget, guilty of statutory rape of a 15 year old, and is a pretty unpleasant character all round – Gilman is full of swaggering energy, but the darkness is never far away in his portrayal.
As well as Livsey’s bravura performance, there’s excellent support from Jeremy Proulx as Chief Bromden, seemingly deaf and mute to his fellow inmates, but a narrator to us as an audience, and Jack Tarlton as the sexually dysfunctional Harding, while Arthur Hughes trembles and stammers poignantly as the shy virgin Billy Bibbit. It’s also refreshing to note that, in Hughes and Melissa Johns, the cast includes two physically disabled actors with no reference at all to their disability in the script.
Lucy Osborne’s set brings to life the suitably depressing atmosphere of an asylum, with a washed-out beige colour scheme, and a seemingly endless stream of piped-in muzak. In an ingenious touch though, she’s added a split level glass box at the back of the stage which portrays what’s going on in other areas of the hospital – so, while the inmates bicker and play cards, there’s also a doctor and nurse having sex on the floor above.
Unlike Alipoor’s previous show, The Believers Are Not Brothers, there’s no multi-media technology on display – this is a very traditional piece of period theatre. Yet the issues are similar: that of toxic masculinity and how the vulnerable are treated in society. There’s much to enjoy in this Cuckoo’s Nest, but also the sense of a missed opportunity – the pacing sometimes seems off, and at over two and a half hours, sometimes the interest can flag.
Yet when it all comes together, it’s thrilling – famous scenes such as McMurphy’s battle for the inmates to watch the World Series, or his attempt to lift the electricity generator (“Well, I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that”) are well recreated, and the climactic scene where McMurphy drags Ratched offstage to rape her is convincingly horrific, especially accompanied by Johanna Town’s eerie lighting.
It’s a production that justifies Alipoor’s burgeoning reputation as a director of considerable clout, and scenes such as McMurphy and Bromden’s electro-shock treatment seem destined to stay in the mind for some considerable time. There are some flaws here, but despite the period detail it’s still relevant to today’s audience – as the strains of Stand By Your Man ring out and the lights dim on the lobotomised body of McMurphy, it’s impossible not to reflect on how we treat the mentally ill. The answers are, like Alipoor’s production, pertinent and unsettling.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is on until 23 June 2018 at the Sheffield Crucible. Click here for more details.