[author-post-rating] (4/5 stars) Fourth Monkey’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will certainly sell plenty of tickets on the fame of its title alone. Yet by the same token the adaptation, although solid, sets itself a difficult task in pleasing an audience whose fond memories of the book and/or film will have led them to buy a ticket.
Set in a mental hospital, the play follows the introduction of a new inmate, McMurphy, who has an immediate effect on the other inmates, going against the grain of the institutional status-quo. It is occasionally narrated by Bromden, the allegedly deaf-dumb ‘Chief’ as she is known by the other inmates. Between scenes, Bromden demonstrates the obvious lunacy and paranoia which probably landed her in the figurative “cuckoo’s nest” to begin with. During scenes, she mostly haunts the corner of the stage, seated in a rocking chair to the left of the white-washed set.
Originally adapted for Broadway in 1963, the play has never quite matched the cultural impact of the book, 1962, and film, 1975. This particular production channels the more endearing features of the film. Certain mannerisms have evidently been studied from Jack Nicholson’s defining performance; what’s more, the stage is flanked by seats on both sides, almost like a catwalk, enabling actors to move around and even turn their back on sections of the audience at a time as though each some scenes are being “shot” from a different angle to the last.
There are many intriguing direction decisions. The predominantly female cast is an exciting slant. When the female Randy McMurphy (the name Randy having its own connotations) defends her statutory rape of a 15-year-old, or stands in just a towel and a cap threatening to bare herself to the nurses, she effectively challenges the theme of sexual-liberty-for-men which previous adaptations have taken for granted: that a strong male “bull-goose-looney” squares off against Nurse Ratched, the castrator. In doing so, the play asks “what about women?”
For some reason the parts of Billy and Dr. Spivey are kept male and it is hard not to wonder how the play might have felt if they too had been played by women (not to say that both male actors performed anything less than commendably), or even how an all-out gender-reversal might have played out; perhaps such blatancy would seem gimmicky. As things stand this directorial decision is a sound one. In particular, hearing the word “dick” substituted for the original crass terminology that Kesey’s original, male characters use for the female genitalia is interesting, if only for the audience’s disconcerted reaction.
There are minor irks. Changing the world-series to the FA Cup final is an attempt to bridge the Atlantic gap that would look ham-fisted in a school play; in theatre it is ok to trust the audience to let such tiny things slide. Besides, if every Americanism discrepancy must be ironed out, perhaps the sociolect might have been slightly adjusted to accommodate the cast’s accents (“Jesus-H-Christ!” yelled in a Galashiels accent sounds incongruous).
That aside, the show is spot-on. It could barely be performed better.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is playing theSpace @ Niddry St until 24 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.