Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 27 July, 2000

In the final minutes of the film Being John Malkovich, "Malkovich" reveals to friend Charlie Sheen how a group of them might live for ever: "You, me... Gary Sinise, maybe." If the reception given to his stage performance in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is anything to go by, Malkovich's sometime Steppenwolf associate Sinise has earned his place among those immortals. The Chicago company's production not only brought the opening-night audience at the Barbican to their feet, but more tellingly elicited loud gasps during the performance not through any bravura or pyrotechnics, but simply because we had become so immersed in the narrative that some of its twists drew genuine shock and dismay.

Dale Wasserman's 1965 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel about a liberating new presence on a mental ward is different in many ways from Milos Forman's subsequent film version. Wasserman and director Terry Kinney retain some of the point-of-view narration of Chief Bromden, the huge schizophrenic Indian persuaded to speak after many years of silence by the simple, playful kindness of newcomer McMurphy; when Tim Sampson delivers these bridging passages, he is isolated in a spotlight as slide projections move across the darkened walls to suggest the vast, infernal machines of the Chief's imaginings. It also becomes apparent that Randle P. McMurphy and Jack Nicholson are not one and the same: Sinise, in his leather jacket and lumberjack shirt, characterises McMurphy as an exceptionally shrewd redneck, naturally exuberant and only given to disruption or misrule when overly restrictive rules are forced upon him in the first place. In this case, the agent of oppression is Nurse Ratched, whose cold, "for your own good" belittlement of patients and other staff alike is played by Amy Morton with the kind of measured, dispassionate delivery at which Lindsay Crouse so excels; she suggests stronger feelings screwed tightly down, and eventually, under McMurphy's cheery provocation, these geyser to the surface.

Robert Brill's set, with its huge, curving white walls and lintels, suggests a kind of psychiatric Odeon. Kinney's sure directorial touch takes an apparently straight naturalistic line in terms of performance, but does not neglect deeper symbolism; he uses passages of Hendrix between scenes, to suggest at once the seemingly chaotic uproar which McMurphy brings and the pioneering promise of freedom which he embodies. The other patients on the ward are efficiently and often winningly characterised. (I was particularly taken with Danton Stone as Martini, prone to hallucination and smilingly dealing cards and passing basketballs to people who aren't there.) The feelgood which Kinney's production brings is not of the vapid, sentimental kind; it is a story straightforwardly told but which conveys the deeper affirmation that "the machine" can still be overcome by a good, wild yawp.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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