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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Blue Orange

[MY NOTE: It is now just over a year since my last ‘review’ (’‘De La Guarda’’ ) , which largely wrote itself , as I had no intention of doing a review when I went to see the show . It was more a case of the spectacle staying with me and demanding to be recorded for posterity.  Last night’s performance was another such occasion ...]

The size and structure of The Cottesloe makes for an intimate night-out at the best of times, but the staging there of this play ( ‘in rep’ until August ) is so perfect as to invoke sympathy for those who may only ever experience it in a ‘grander’ arena. The setting, a consulting room in a psychiatric hospital, is reminiscent of a boxing ring and although the wonderful cast comprises just three players (Andrew Lincoln as Bruce, Bill Nighy as Robert and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Christopher), there are for the most part, only two on stage in active combat at any given time.

The title speaks volumes, but as with many an artistic work, its significance is far greater once the piece has been properly absorbed, rather than offering any sort of insightful introduction. Relevant clues are that words are an issue, as is of course colour (clash rather than mere contrast); and the ‘forward slash’ smacks of ‘now’, although one feels that it was judicious to resist the temptation of a ‘‘com(edy)’’ suffix.  For, despite this being a very contemporary piece (complete with reference to The Millenium Dome), the deep belly laughs it provokes are balanced with pathos and polemic, while technology makes but a brief and incongruous appearance in the shape of a mobile ‘phone. One can also indulge in some reckless, word   association… ‘‘Blue’’ may suggest ‘melancholy’ or even ‘sexual explicitness’ and although both apply, it is strictly a raw, verbal thing in the case of the sex - this is no ‘‘Romans in Britain’‘! ‘‘Orange’‘? Well, apart from being a colour, it is of course a fruit and enjoys a central role in the play, both in terms of physical position and plot construction. The selected oranges are large and beautiful, basking luxuriously in the constant glow of a finely judged spotlight. In contrast to the imperfect world of the consulting room - a microcosm of the big, wide world, at least, for the black patient – they are so perfect, even genetically modified to peel with ease and to emit that mouth-watering, ‘soft-crunchy’ sound of an orange in preparation.

The play revolves around not only the bowl of oranges, but the central issue as to whether or not a psychiatric patient is ready to be released into the community. En passant, it raises many other questions about the discriminating effect of cultural parochialism, the meaning and power of words (’‘Human being is a verb, not a noun - Allen Ginsburg!’’ ) , as well as the more obvious : where or what is home ? Who should ultimately be ‘‘the authority’’ in our lives? Where or what is the line between sanity and insanity? What is normal? The ‘‘Afro-Caribbean’’ patient, Christopher, is portrayed by Ejiofor, in an exuberant, slam-dunk of a performance, which is not to undervalue the intelligence of his approach-play. Christopher is an attractive, energetic, street -wise young man, who, just when you have totally absorbed his sense of feeling misunderstood and oppressed, shocks you with explosively paranoid or quietly disturbing reminders of his ‘‘borderline psychosis and neurosis’‘. The disorder of the human condition is laid butt-naked in the asking of difficult questions, but it is the lashing wit of the insightful script, which deserves the great performances it inspires and makes for a cracking night out.

As is so often the case with going to the theatre, I was late in my arrival, having made a mad dash from a chaotic office. The only consolation was that my date was even later than I, courtesy of the Gower Street roadworks (then screaming from the top of the Let’s Dig Up London Charts). I had left a ticket at the box office and as I made my uncertain way in the general direction of my seat, my heart sank on hearing via the public address system that Chiwetel Ejiofor was unwell with a throat complaint ...[someone should tell us the law on being short-changed with an understudy ! ]....’’ but,’’ continued the friendly announcement ,’’ he has nevertheless decided that he would like to perform tonight ‘’. Unbelievable result! And judging by the passion and vocal pyrotechnics of his performance, I can scarcely imagine that audiences on the next couple of nights would have been as fortunate as we were with his perseverance. As luck would have it, seat number ‘‘H19’’ at The Cottesloe is, by quirk of alphabetical fate, in the front row. Perhaps I was additionally sensitive as a black man at this particular play or maybe it was simply that the seat beside me was empty for the whole of Act I. Whatever the real reason, I felt ‘over-exposed’ in my ringside position. I was not so much self-conscious in myself, as feeling uncomfortably exposed to the personal lives of others (and so it should have been, I suppose).  Like the sweat of a boxer in the latter rounds of a gruelling fight, the saliva of the players was worryingly easy to see glistening in the lights as it flew across the stage. I was half expecting to see a bloody gumshield on the floor! Moreover, you are unlikely ever to experience a more dramatic juxtaposition of heavyweights, than in this play - that of Idi Amin ‘‘Dada’’ and Muhammed Ali ...you have to be there!

It seems almost sacrilegious to be so far into this review before mentioning Bill Nighy, who plays Robert, the senior consultant . He appears on stage after the scene has been set by Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln (junior doctor, Bruce). Nighy’s is a veritable tour de force, spanning a whole range of emotions and attitudes: at times, swaying as a jaded, wise-cracking cynic; other times, haughty, patronizing but essentially benevolent; then spitting (literally), quivering (literally) with rage. Robert’s incomplete efforts to develop a book from his thesis and his hopeless preoccupation with becoming a professor as a result are nicely encapsulated in an amusing exchange during which he encourages Christopher to be true to himself:

-’‘Express yourself’‘.

-’‘Who d’you think you are, Professor Groovy?’‘

-’‘Well, strictly speaking, DOCTOR Groovy actually.’’

The characters are all flawed, but individuals will react differently to them. I, for one, was left with least sympathy for Bruce, an ambitious and ambiguous young man, who ingratiates himself with his senior consultant, in the hope of facilitating progress up the greasy career pole. Much of the play turns directly or indirectly on Bruce’s use of ‘‘a racial epithet’’ (see ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ ) and this issue provides fertile ground on which the writer, Joe Penhall, poses more questions about the importance of context - the meaning of words, the relevance of who says them and in what state of mind. At this point, I should say that if I were put in a straight-jacket and subjected to unspeakable abuse with electrodes, I might utter the criticism that Bruce may not have been as perfectly cast as his fellow actors and that the dynamics between him and Robert did not always seem to qualify as a realistic representation of the medical hierarchy at large.

By the end, it seems that the lunatics have indeed taken over the asylum and when, during a heated argument between the doctors, Christopher screams ‘‘shut the fuck up - you’re driving me round the bend!!’‘, we can relate to him without a second thought . Like many a great play, there is mystery behind a crucial fact - in this case, what did Christopher do at Shepherds Bush Market to get himself ‘‘sectioned’’ in the first place…? This is indeed a great play, which is not only a tribute to West End theatre on its own merits, but all the more so because such an exploration of racial sensitivities could hardly be envisaged on Broadway. Rather like life itself, it ultimately asks more questions than it answers. But it is no less enlightening for that, showing us the dangers of believing that we truly understand anything outside of our own personal experience and that the expression of what might appear to be a delusion, can often shine a bright light on an underlying truth. The beauty is that if you’re not in the mood for either ‘ology or ‘osophy, you can simply sit back and howl with laughter. It was full moon on Thursday night!

 

© MM Ayodeji C.R.Mahoney Esq.       

Posted by Dej on 03 Aug around 2pm

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