Who’s mad and who’s sane? It’s a question that resonates deeply with literature (who can forget One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest protagonist Randle McMurphy and his battle with the system?), film and let’s face it, modern society. The answer, balancing on a knife edge, can hold the key to all manner of things. And in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, that key is the key to freedom.
I recently previewed Canoe Theatre’s Blue/Orange, keen to drum up a bit of interest for this exceptional play that has seen huge success in the past with National Theatre. The subject matter gripped me from the word go; a failing NHS, the ramifications of institutional politics and a young man wrestling with his identity and mental well-being.
Performed at Sherman Cymru, the story was set entirely in a doctor’s office. We (as the audience) were led into the theatre where rows of plastic chairs surrounded this simple set up. Immediately it reminded me of a doctor’s waiting room; I can’t be sure if this is what they were trying to evoke, but it certainly did the trick for me..
The intimate setting was integral in the drama and power of the performance. Played entirely by three actors, we were so close we could quite easily touch them if we reached out and tried. That uncomfortable feeling and closeness encapsulated the paranoia projected by the play’s main star, Christopher (played by RWCMD student, Simon Mokhele).
As we eagerly awaited the start of the play, I as always had high expectations. I knew it would go one of either way; the play would be thought-provoking, intellectual and powerfully compelling, or it would miss the real issues at hand.
Well, happily it went the first way. Blue/Orange tackled the ever-present problems of a poorly funded NHS, where professionals lose sight of their obligation to help the sick and the mentally troubled in a bid to cut costs and free up beds.
Christopher, who has been detained under the mental health act with borderline personality disorder, is due to be released. His fate lies in the hands of Bruce, a doctor certain that Christopher’s issues run far deeper than originally imagined, and Robert, the “big dog” of the hospital, with his sights set entirely on promotions, publishing a book (with a focus on “black psychosis”… yep, seriously) and cutting corners and costs in any way possible.
As Bruce persists to try and detain Christopher for longer (with the worry that actually he is suffering from schizophrenia), Robert further and further asserts his place, juggling with Christopher’s mental-wellbeing in the process.
It’s the soul-destroying tale of those in charge being able to do whatever the hell they like, even if it does lack any morality and suggest utter insanity.
And there the question lies; who is truly insane?
Is the Orange really blue?
Is Christopher really the son of Idi Amin?
Obviously I don’t want to give too much away. What I can say is Blue/Orange attacks this profoundly complicated theme with wit and dramatic vigour. It dives straight into the issues of racial prejudice and cultural judgement; almost painfully so.
Political, funny and seriously unnerving. It was brilliant.
My only criticism would be the length of the first half. I think it could have been cut easily by half an hour; and it wasn’t until the second half that I was truly consumed by the play, feeling anger, resentment, shock and pity all in one bundle. The subject matter was so poignant and the acting was so superb that I think the dialogue could have been reduced… just to make it a bit snappier and more attention-grabbing.
Overall the play did exactly what it set out to do. It highlighted the problems overwhelming the NHS and the racial prejudices still existing, challenging and evoking emotions; but it did all this in a somehow light… but equally powerful way. It was quite magic.
Blue/Orange is showing at Sherman Cymru until Thursday. Catch it while you can.