Livin' la Vida Loca

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Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange

Ensemble Theatre | Sydney

directed by Anna Crawford

Health services are a crucial part of all civilisations, where access to medical professionals is a basic human right, regardless of class and creed. The subject of mental health is a growing area of concern in the West, with awareness and understanding of relevant issues fast improving through our communities. Joe Penhall’s script centres around Christopher, a mental health patient with the UK’s National Health Service. Surrounding him are two doctors, Bruce is the younger of the pair, idealistic but naive, and Robert is the authority figure of the hospital, seasoned and carnivorously ambitious. A fight ensues with Christopher caught in the middle, and as the plot unfolds, the play’s themes expand simultaneously. Christopher’s African ethnicity and low social status are the linchpin that brings into discussion, not just the intriguing process of psychiatric diagnosis and the health industry in general, but also race relations in contemporary settings and the machinations of authority (and its betrayal) in our daily social structures.

The ideas are big but Penhall’s story is precise and simple. His captivating dialogue is rich with humour, controversy and intellect, consistently entertaining our senses and challenging our ethics. Some portions could be more succinct, but Penhall’s words and their rhythms are brilliantly crafted, as evidenced by the thrilling and energetic narratives that the show’s cast and director are able to create from the text. Anna Crawford’s direction is decidedly wonderful. The comedy of the piece is powerfully delivered, and the immense joy of being in an auditorium with laughter erupting at every turn is simply theatrical magic. Crawford introduces a daring freedom that encourages her actors to make risky choices, and much to our delight, they all seem to work. Likewise, the many scenes of altercation are loaded with explosive drama, always with a threatening tension and dangerous intrigue. Philosophical and ethical arguments in the work are the ingredients that make it feel substantial, and they are perfectly tuned, disallowed from disrupting dramatic flow, but often given an ambiguity that makes the ideas seductively confronting.

The use of space is however, not always elegant. Actors are frequently positioned so that their facial expressions are not available to big sections of the audience, which can be frustrating as well as distracting. Set pieces are composed of generic furniture elements from public sector offices, all terribly unattractive. The space has not been designed to be a realistic one, yet the several chairs and tables seem to use the notion of realism or accuracy as a convenient justification. A work of this calibre requires greater imagination and creativity in its visual design, and not be allowed to pale in comparison.

In the role of Robert is Sean Taylor, whose virtuoso performance bears the kind of astonishing glory that leaves a lasting impression. The most dangerous villain is the one who combines truths with lies, so that you are kept on his side, giving him the benefit of the doubt until too late. Taylor makes it hard for us to know if his character is an evil racist doctor, or a progressive thinker, and our struggle in trying to figure him out is a masochistic pleasure. The actor is full of confidence and his presence is all-consuming; we cannot keep our eyes off of him. Taylor’s marvellous voice provides all that we need to know, and his face expresses everything his character wishes, but also contradicts the doctor’s intentions.

The show is thoroughly rehearsed, with every actor seeming to know exactly what they wish to achieve, yet the stage feels to be a spontaneous one. Dorian Nkono is extremely lively and likeable as Christopher, the patient who may or may not be schizophrenic. Nkono’s control over his physicality and the way he uses movement enrich the role and provide a vibrant energy that elevates the play to a level of theatre that is more than words. His sense for comedy is outstanding. Nkono is a truly funny actor whose approach ranges from subtle to slapstick, but an emphasis on storytelling makes his work authentic and compelling.

The young Dr Bruce is played by Ian Meadows who has the arduous task of maintaining composure as the only unassertive personality in the show. He often gets overwhelmed by his gargantuan counterparts, but he resists irrelevant exaggeration and delivers a performance that is ultimately a truthful one. Meadow’s work is less flamboyant, which means that the ideological arguments he represents can get subsumed at certain points, but he manages to find a climax at the concluding moments to match in energy and produce an impressive ending to the piece.

Racism and mental illness are contentious issues that elude easy definition. We understand them in abstraction, but how they are discussed and dealt with in reality involves constant negotiation between vacillations of subjectivities. In Blue/Orange, the powerful and the powerless collide in a system that attempts to be fair, just and democratic. We might all want the best for the world that we share, but our perspectives are different, and finding agreement on a unified destination becomes problematic. The doctor should know what is best for the patient, but the patient is not without rights and opinions. In assigning authority to some, society risks the removal of rights from others, but the ironic creation of power structures seems to be the only mechanism we have for finding harmony.

photo | ©Clare Hawley

#joepenhall #sydney

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