Ken Kesey’s novel about life in a psychiatric institution in 1960s America has been adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman, and had a sell-out run at the Gielgud theatre at the end of 2004. Now at the Garrick, Christian Slater returns to reprise his role as the inmate who dares to challenge the authorities. Alex Kingston joins Slater and many of the original cast to take up the mantle of Nurse Ratched, the iron lady of mental health. Caroline Bishop went to watch the power struggle…
Kingston’s Nurse Ratched is a control freak of the highest order. Trussed up in her spotless white uniform and sensible white shoes she rules the psychiatric ward with an iron rod, dictating procedure and maintaining control from her nurse’s station as a pilot in a cockpit. The hapless inmates under her control are too weak to make any attempt to rock the boat and Ratched exploits this to her benefit, gaining control through group therapy sessions that humiliate rather than help the patients.
With a smug half-smile on her face throughout, Ratched seems to relish the challenge presented by Randle Patrick McMurphy (Slater), a larger than life, party-loving gambler who has been transferred from a work farm for aggressive behaviour. Immediately he sees through Nurse “ball-cutter” Ratched’s methods, accusing her therapy sessions of being like a “pecking party” and encouraging the patients to break the rules and stand up to the bully. Directors Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey also hint at a sexual tension between the lipstick-clad dominatrix nurse and the womanising McMurphy.
The inmates, described by Owen O’Neill’s Harding as “psycho-ceramics: the crack-pots of humanity”, seem less than crazy in this production, they are simply vulnerable outcasts who more need the example of McMurphy’s strength than the repressive treatment that Ratched doles out. Paul Ready is new to the role of the boy with a stutter Billy Bibbit, whose mental vulnerability is exploited by Ratched with disastrous consequences, while Gavin Robertson (Scanlon), Alan Douglas (Ruckly), Alex Gianni (Cheswick) and Ian Coppinger (Martini) play the other “acutes”. Clad in dressing gowns, socks and sandals, they are a dishevelled contrast to Ratched’s controlled attire. McMurphy, for one, is determined to find out if the nurse has an ounce of human flesh under her perfectly starched dress and repeatedly tests her grip on the ward.
Wasserman’s adaptation tells the story through the eyes of the Chief (Brendan Dempsey, reprising his role from the first run), whose presence is limited to a brooding watchfulness. He gives the audience his considered observations of life on the ward – including details of electric shock treatment dispensed upstairs – in separate interludes to the main story, which provide a dark contrast to the humour in the play. By keeping quiet and biding his time, the Chief demonstrates an alternative method of resisting the rules, and in the end it is this, rather than McMurphy’s rage against the machine, that wins out.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is playing at the Garrick theatre until 3 June.