Being a great fan of the movie starring Jack Nicholson, I was more than a little keen to see Dale Wasserman’s stage version of Ken Kesey’s groundbreaking novel. Program notes reveal that Kesey wrote the celebrated story based on his experiences as a medical guinea pig for government research into psychoactive drugs at a US hospital in 1959. The resulting novel, based largely on his drug-induced ponderings, enjoyed instant critical and commercial success. Set in a mental institution resided over by the cold and calculating Big Nurse (Nurse Ratched), it was read as a battle between the Establishment and the Everyman, the latter represented by one Randle P. McMurphy, a character that Jack Nicholson made his own in what has become a cinematic classic.
The trouble of course with a character that has been made famous by such a respected and revered actor like Nicholson, is that it is hard to see anyone else in the role, which must put a great deal of pressure on any actor that tries to fill such enormous shoes. In the Brisbane Arts production, Michael Mudd makes a fine attempt at doing just that and, for the most part, succeeds. From a slow start, this talented actor warms to the role and by the end of Act I is indeed an enjoyable McMurphy, well and truly reveling in his sparring matches with nemesis Nurse Ratched (Karen Peart). There was much debate among fellow theatre-goers on the night as to whether Mudd had borrowed too much from Nicholson, a debate which I’m sure is common when a role is so connected to a single actor, but few can deny that this young performer obviously relishes the opportunity to play such a magnificent character.
In front of an appropriately drab, grey set, director Jan Paterson leads her actors through the funny and moving script with an ease that is only let down temporarily by a lack of pace in the opening scenes. I’m undecided as to whether the script is partly to blame here but it seems to take an awfully long time to go anywhere. The energy and pace that comes to the fore at the end of Act I, when the patients gather to pretend they’re watching a baseball match, is pure theatrical magic and is at a level that I would like to see much sooner, particularly from McMurphy’s first entrance. Technical hitches on a couple of occasions unfortunately added to pace problems but, hey, this is live theatre!
Of the supporting cast, the standout performance for me is Dan James as Billy Bibbit. This actor’s concentration, mannerisms and vocal work, including a pronounced stutter, are all spot on, making him extremely watchable throughout. David Nicoll as Ruckly has almost no lines and yet delivers perhaps the most focused performance of all, never losing concentration for a second. Gregory Rowbotham’s Martini is also an accomplished performance with repetitive movement and facial twitches adding immeasurably to the character, and Greg Stiff’s Chief Bromden is a well-rounded and moving characterisation.
If there’s one thing that doesn’t quite work for me, however, it is the relationship between McMurphy and Ratched, which is after all the driving force behind the whole story. It is a tension which should gently rise to fever pitch by the middle of Act 2 but which I don’t feel, on the night I saw it at least, quite reaches the necessary heights demanded by the writer. Two talented actors are in charge here and indeed work hard to position themselves as polar opposites in the drama as it unfolds, but I guess I just want more, to the point where their icy glares across the room could be cut with a knife and the audience feels uneasy in their presence.
This quibble aside however, Brisbane Arts is providing yet another entertaining night of theatre which I’m sure will improve greatly in pace and energy with a few more performances under its belt. A play which depicts a group of mentally ill patients can so easily be insensitively overdone but the director and cast of this production ensure this is never the case, offering the audience a group of very real, moving and thought-provoking characters who stay with you long after the final curtain falls.