Released in 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was arguably the most searing and memorable motion picture of my youth. The film starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, helmed by Milos Forman shone a light on mental illness and claimed five Oscars in the process.
With a title drawn from a nursery rhyme, Ken Kesey’s book – that spawned Dale Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation and later the film – was written in 1959 and published in 1962. Kesey developed the novel while a graduate student in Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program. It was partly inspired by his part-time job as an orderly in a veterans’ hospital. Kesey had also begun participating in experiments involving LSD and other substances for Stanford’s Psychology Department. His writing focused on institutionalised patients and their treatment.
In Cuckoo’s Nest, that comes mainly at the hands of their overseer, Nurse Ratched. She controls them with a mixture of rewards and shame. The patients live under a spell of fear.
The chief character, apart from the nurse, is the charismatic Randall McMurphy, a rebellious convict sent to “the loony bin” from a regular prison. He is guilty of battery and gambling. He had also been charged with, but never convicted of, statutory rape. McMurphy is transferred from a prison work farm to the hospital, thinking it will be an easy way to serve out his sentence in comfort. He is quick to make an impression on the other inmates and greatly influences the hitherto smooth running of the facility by Nurse Ratched, who doesn’t take kindly to his “power”.
The novel’s half-Native American narrator has been in the mental hospital since the end of World War II. Chief Bromden pretends to be deaf and mute, and through this guise he becomes privy to many of the ward’s dirtiest secrets.
While I vividly recall the strong impact the film had on me all those years ago, I can’t say the same about the play; especially not through the first act. Unexpectedly, I felt disconnected from the characters until after the interval, when they started to weave elements of their “magic”. Perhaps that was due to the narrative, or the direction or the acting (or a combination).
The only persona that stood out was that of McMurphy (Mike Robins), whose affect on the other patients and the smooth operation of the institution was palpable. Nurse Ratched (Catherine Glavicic) was more moderate in tone and demeanour than I would have liked. Again, I speak specifically of Act I.
But the action kicked up a gear after the break and became more “user friendly”. That’s when I did start to forge that all important bond with at least a number of the characters. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest then transformed into the far more immersive experience I had been anticipating. The strength and power of the writing in Act II was far more appreciable, as the true extent of Nurse Ratched’s horrors took an unassailable grip.
Tonally, the vocal acuity of the Chief is an undoubted highlight. Steeped in opera, this is the first foray into straight theatre for Eddie Muliaumaseali’i.
So, to summarise, the play – with a cast of 15 – has teeth, but nowhere near the bite of the movie. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, from 3 – 11 June 2017.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Cosi (MTC) – theatre review
- Next to Normal (Brisbane Arts Theatre) – Theatre Review
- A Midnight Visit (Broad Encounters) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television