Pros: Belinda McGuirk’s excellent performance as Nurse Ratched and the fluent direction, which makes this an entertaining play to watch
Cons: Lack of challenge to the sexist stereotypes of the original book and play
Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the plot revolves around RP McMurphy, a charismatic and rebellious man who fakes insanity to avoid serving a sentence at a prison work farm, thinking that hospital will be a less restrictive environment. As soon as he sets foot in the institution his unruly behaviour sparks a flame of freedom and insurrection among the other patients, who are subjugated to Nurse Ratched’s tyrannical and inhumane regime. The tension between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy increases with each incident and affects all the patients in the ward. Realising that he might be kept indefinitely in the hospital by the cruel nurse, McMurphy plans a escape with the help of his fellow patients.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an important work that challenges the inhuman conditions often suffered by patients of mental institutions and the victimisation of those who have been unable to adapt to socially accepted ways of living. However, Ken Kesey’s book is deeply sexist and a blatant reaction to the feminist wave that emerged in 1960’s America. The stage adaptation mirrors this position. The powerful female character of the story, Nurse Ratched, is portrayed not only as an evil and ruthless person but as a woman obsessed with castrating (physically and psychologically) her patients. There is clear resentment towards her for not adhering to the traditional female role and she is perceived as a threat to masculinity: in fact, that’s what she’s always doing in the story, emasculating and humiliating the men around her, whether her patients, her ward aides or the doctor.
The solution offered to this behaviour is an attempted rape by McMurphy, a brutal image which suggests little sympathy for Nurse Ratched and which causes the hero of the story to be lobotomised. Kesey and Wasserman’s alternative to the powerful female character is that of the prostitute, docile and unchallenging, who in her simplicity and agreement with men is presented in a better light.
I find disappointing that Chickenshed, with their inclusive and progressive values, didn’t challenge this portrayal of women in what otherwise is a remarkable and thought provoking story. One way of doing it could have been by reimagining the role of Nurse Ratched as a man, thereby stripping out the negative connotations attached to the female character. By remaining loyal to Dale Wasserman’s adaptation they have staged a great classic but also perpetuated some classic prejudices.
Leaving content aside, this is an enjoyable production, nicely staged and directed. Andrew Caddies’s lighting design is particularly beautiful. Although not breath-taking, the overall acting is engaging. Olivier LeClair as McMurphy, with his wool beanie and pack of cigarettes under his t-shirt sleeve, is undoubtedly inspired by Jack Nicholson’s role in the film adaptation, maybe setting the bar too high. Belinda McGuirk’s performance as Nurse Ratched is absolutely fantastic and reason enough to go and see the play. She embodies the ruthless woman with true finesse and sophistication.
Author: Dale Wasserman from the novel by Ken Kesey
Director: Lou Stein
Producer: Chickenshed Theatre
Box Office: 020 8292 9222
Booking Link: https://www.chickenshed.org.uk/Event/one-flew?spektrix_bounce=true
Booking Until: 12 May 2018