One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: An Australian Adaptation’. Adapting a massive American classic to an Australian based script? Was it a wise idea? Definitely! But did the adaptors manage to retain the tension and the richly written characters? Definitely! By changing Chief Bromden from a native ‘Indian’ to an Aboriginal, brought the storyline and events to our doorstep. There were no annoying American accents, just good Strine. Any American idioms were smoothed out. Originally adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman, this exceptional adaptation by Chris McRae and Luke Miller was carried out in close liaison with Samuel Yombich Pilot-Kickett, to ensure genuine Aboriginal content.

The book, ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was written in 1959 by an orderly at a mental health facility, Ken Kesey. Kesey had a similar job as Aide Turkle, and so had the chance to chat at night, privately with the patients. At first, this book became one of America’s most banned novels. Ten years later, with the powerful Civil Rights Movement, changes were demanded for the treatment of the psychologically damaged patients.

Only three films have received all five major Oscars, those being Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. The other two were ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934) and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991). The 1975 film is also number 20 in the American Film Industry’s top 100 films, and yet I enjoyed – if ‘enjoyed’ is the correct word for seeing the inmates enduring the treatment – this production more than the film. In the same poll, Nurse Ratched was voted number 5 Villain and R.P. McMurphy number 17 Hero.

With a great deal of pride, the Darlington Theatre Players are presenting the World Premiere of this Australian adaptation of the classic, ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. This incredibly special two hours and twenty-minute production can be seen each evening at 7.30 in the Marloo Theatre, just off Greenmount Hill from the 8th until the 23rd July. Booking is advised.

This is most definitely an adult-only play as it contains strong language and grim themes.

The Scene:           1970. An Australian mental institution in the countryside.

Set designer and head builder:    Gary Wetherilt has come up with yet another fabulous set. It is a rundown hospital common room, with grubby white walls, lime green woodwork and a beige linoleum floor. On the left stage apron is an exterior, dark red brick wall and some plants; this gives the audience the feeling of looking from the outside through the wall to the room behind – clever idea that enhances the feeling of being free and looking in at the trapped residents. To the left of the stage is a corridor leading to the showers, the walls had real tiling. This flat could swing out to reveal the operating theatre. Next was a large passageway leading to the wards or dormitories. Then a broom cupboard and another door. The back wall was cutaway to show the back lane. In the rear righthand corner is a staff control box, this has glazed windows and a door. Inside were microphones, a drug cupboard and a lighting fuse box. To the right of the common room were two exceptionally large, multi-paned windows leading to a garden and the main road.

On the right apron were the musicians.

Set construction and painting:    The quality of the construction by the large, dedicated team of Connie Wetherilt, Yvette Drager Wetherilt, Luke Miller, Christopher Steicke, Ray Egan, Chris McRae, Rebecca McRae, Amanda Moloney, Andre Victor, Steve Moloney, Michael Hart, Sean Wcislo (pronounced Cislo), Paul Reed, Jordan D’Arcy, Zac Moloney, Kieran Ridgway and Rachel Vonk was amazing.

Properties manager:       As always, Lesley Sutton has begged and borrowed an amazing selection of nick-nacks. From a 1960s hospital operating bed, a wheelchair, rocking chair, games tables and an imaginary crucifix.

Lighting designer:            Shelly Miller has a wonderful touch of employing spotlights but leaving a low-level flood of a correctly coloured tint – to enhance the background. When tempers were raised, the colour went slightly redder, and then in the evening the blue glow worked perfectly.

Lighting technician:         Bailey Fellows gave us an even light on the large common room; a tricky thing to do. Invariably there are areas of wall in dark shade.

Lighting operator:            Chloe Wiggers had a good soft and smooth fader touch and quick on the cues.

Sound designer and operator:    Guy Jackson gave us clear stereo sound.

Stage manager:                Belinda Beatty and her stage crew Lesley Sutton, Rebecca McRae and Erin Steicke ensured quick scene changes. Never more than 8 seconds.

Intimacy co-ordinator:   Michelle Ezzy ensures that the actors all feel comfortable with their parts and partners. This is quite a new crew task, but a most important one.

Further reading: Dr. Cameron of Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal carried out lobotomies and electro treatment on 700 patients. 60 years later the victims and their families are still trying to get compensation from the Canadian Government, who knew at the time of the abuse. Some patients were receiving electro 12 times a day, for a week.

Chief Bromden (Andre Victor) is a massive yet passive, Aboriginal patient in a neglected psychiatric hospital. He has learnt that in order to keep out of the internal politics, he convinces the staff and patients alike that he is a deaf mute; through this façade he learns many of the ward’s murkiest secrets. He befriends a free-spirited, rebellious conman, Randle P. McMurphy (Luke Miller) who has faked insanity in order to serve his sentence lazily in the hospital rather than toiling on a prison farm. McMurphy soon discovers that the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Kate O’Sullivan) is a manipulative bully; and that along with Ratched are two sadists, Aides Williams (Aaron Lucas) and Warren (Rachel Vonk) who rule the wards with unflinching and heartless authority.

McMurphy finds that the smart, handsome Dale Harding (Jeff Watkins) who is the unofficial leader of the acute patients, is ashamed of his suppressed homosexuality. The acutes are patients who can still be cured, and so are there voluntarily. Playing cards in the common room corner is young shy Billy Bibbit (Sean Wcislo). Billy is an anxious chap with an extreme speech impediment, due to the domination of both Nurse Ratched and his mother. Accompanying Billy is a vociferous patient, Cheswick (Paul Reed) who always wants change, and his new friend Martini (Jordan Jones) a patient who has cruel and relentless hallucinations, but quite enjoys talking to these imaginary friends. At the same table is Scanlon (Christopher Steicke), a man gripped by explosives and devastation.

Pacing around the ward is elderly Sefelt (Ray Egan), an epileptic who refuses to take his medication. He talks to the wall, grasps his hands behind his back and then aimlessly shuffles off again. Near the entrance to the showers is wheelchair bound, World War I veteran, Colonel Matterson (Michael Hart) who due to shellshock has severe senile dementia, and only reacts by swaying to loud music and disturbances.

Nurse Flinn (Jordan D’Arcy) is a shy, very nervous nurse completely out of her depth in this style of hospital. Being a good Catholic, she crosses herself and cringes at every event.

The caring and agreeable ward medic is Dr. John Spivey (Gavin Crane) who is scared to challenge Nurse Ratched.

Standing against the wall, with his arms outstretched and in a distressing crucifixion stance, is ex-troublemaker Ruckly (Adrijan Teddy Levis).

With the help of Aide Turkle (Steve Moloney), McMurphy organises a midnight party with stolen drinks and two prostitute girlfriends he has smuggled in. One is Candy Starr (Alexandra D’Ulisse) specially for virgin Billy. The other girl is Sandra (Tashlin Church) a well-endowed friend of Candy. Will the party be a success?

Composer and musical director Kieran Ridgway has brought a new angle to the show, by providing backing music. The music starts with the Chief doing an imaginary walkabout in the common room whilst Brad Jeffrey plays the didgeridoo and the didgeribone. The latter is a two-metre didge made from Bunning’s plastic piping and painted silver; it has the same sound as a digeridoo but with a softer, smoother tone. Guitarist Chris Johnston and bass guitarist, Devlin Turbin create a clever blend of sound effects and mild staccato music reflecting the instability of the minds. The piano / keyboards are in the hands of experienced accompanists Michael Baker and Meg Vicensoni, who play phrases. Conductor Kieran matches the pace to the action, whilst keeping the volume down allowing the dialogue to be heard.

Costumière and wardrobe manager Marjorie DeCaux along with costume assistants Lynda Stubbs, Christopher Steicke and Tracy Vonk, have produced a beige short sleeved shirt for the inmates. An immaculate pale blue sister’s uniform for Ratched and all white uniforms for the Aides. The prostitutes looked stunning, one with a pelmet length skirts, the other in leather jeans and both in lowcut tops.

Director Chris McRae, and shadow director Sophie David had a large cast to handle. ALL perfectly rehearsed in their extremely demanding depictions. The main characters were played by a talented group of actors, who are always excellent value, but I have never seen them better than in this play.

This is an extremely fine production. Packed with emotion, clever observation and fine talent. An actor who is in his very first stage show made my jaw drop with the quality, well done Jordan Jones.

What can I say other than the pace was perfect, the projection of the lines – even in an argument – was clear? The bit players like Adrijan, Ray and Mike had no dialogue, but you could feel their inner pain which they passed on to the audience subtly. Production assistant Rebecca McRae ensured the complex show ran smoothly.

It seemed inappropriate to cheer at the end, so perhaps a short clap and a standing ovation would be most fitting for a production that must be up for a few awards.