One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

HUMAN SACRIFICE THEATRE: David Myles has staged an ambitious production of Ken Kesey's iconic work of literature.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Human Sacrifice Theatre, with David Myles at the helm, have staged an ambitious production of Ken Kesey's iconic work on mental illness and powerlessness, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

First, a disclaimer; I have not seen the 1975 film, and I have only read enough of my hastily-acquired copy of the novel to get a flavour of the original, but in my defense neither was on my high-school reading list. For those like me, a swift precis: a tough character and general opportunist named McMurphy (Mark Diaco) has decided to fake psychopathy and serve out a five-month sentence for statutory rape in the nuthouse instead of the workhouse, but finds his libertarian ways in conflict with the disciplinarian head nurse, Ratched (Natalia Novikova). Shennanigans ensue.

The production features an impressive set, a spritz of Dettol and a cast of thousands to assist in the bringing to life of this epic storyline, first adapted for Broadway in 1963 by Dale Wasserman, and now further adapted by Human Sacrifice Theatre. Weighing in at two and a half hours, not including a 20-minute intermission, this is not a short play; there was more than a little wriggling among the audience towards the end.

The piece has been relocated from the US to a 'non-specific location' in Australia – a non-specificity which appears to refer to both place and time. Chief Bromden (the underused Stan Yarramunua) describes his father as a man of the Wathaurong tribe, and there are casual references to Paxil and Prozac and Channel 9. However, while these changes might add some flexibility, they drain authenticity and interest out of the work. Watching a group of patients rebel over an unspecified sports 'final', rather than the World Series, somehow doesn't quite carry the same weight.

The story of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is deeply rooted in the time and place it occurred: the heyday of psychosurgery, un-sedated electroshock and experimental LSD treatments, a time at which mental health professionals were willing to inflict gross cruelty because they often simply didn't have any better options. Nowhere was quicker with the icepick than the US, where this book woke up a whole generation to the horror of an extremely common procedure – one that wasn't nearly as common in Australia.

Nor does this updated Cuckoo have all that much to say about the problems of modern mental health, beyond a single line describing (the no-longer-drug-addicted) Dr Spivey: "A doctor with two hundred patients, a bleeding ulcer and no desire to make waves," which I will concede is still very much accurate.

Many other elements have been mostly removed from the piece: the 'black boy' orderlies have become white Australians, and with them, much of the book's casual racism has also gone. Nurse Ratched, the iconic character of the play, has lost the (odd and more than a mite misogynistic) motivation of her loathing of her own sexuality. But with these elements, most of the work's shock value has also departed – although, mystifyingly, the exposure of Ratched's breasts in the penultimate scene is awkwardly left in.

The resulting piece is, unfortunately, somewhat pale and adrift. With so many themes gone or confused, it has to focus exclusively on the battle of wills between oppressed and oppressor, and between freedom and order.

Luckily, there is plenty of good source material, and plenty of excellent acting, to keep the piece from sinking. Excellent performances all round – with particular accolades to Diaco's endless energy, Novikova's precision and Adam Mattaliano's concentrated hilarity, as well as the quiet excellence drifting around the edge of the stage in the shape of Kirk Alexander and Antonios Baxevanidis – mean that even if this play doesn't quite do justice to its historical and social weight, it certainly isn't boring to watch.

The dialogue is light and sharp, and many of Kesey's funniest lines are used to excellent effect. With the exception of Bromley's pre-recorded monologues – which are staticky and hard to follow, and accompanied by projected printed circuit boards – this is a competently-executed performance.

Rating: 3 stars

Human Sacrifice Theatre presents
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Director: David Myles
Producers: Arthur Panagiotaras, Mark Diaco, Justin Hocking and Linc Hasler
Set design: Remy Le Beau
Lighting design: Lucas Silva-Myles
Score: Stan Yarramunua, Vincent Diaco and Marshall White
Artwork: Dark Miaco
Cast: Kirk Alexander, Antonios Baxevanidis, Mark Diaco, Claudia Greenstone, Hannah Greenwood, Justin Hocking, Silas James, Adam Mattaliano, Colin MacPherson, Graham Moyes, Richard Neal, Natalia Novikova, Greg Pandelidis, Josh Parnell, Ramona Von Pusch, Stan Yarramunua

Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street Prahran
November 24–December 11

Nicole Eckersley

Tuesday 29 November, 2011

About the author

Nicole Eckersley is a Melbourne based writer, editor and reviewer.