Young Vic, London
4th June, 2016, matinee
I was fairly young when the original production of Blue/Orange played at the National Theatre in 2000, and my early interest in theatre had not yet quite seeped over into the world of contemporary British writing. But what I did know of the play before seeing Matthew Xia’s production at the Young Vic was that it was set in contemporary London and is considered one of the first major plays of this century.
Formally, the play seems quite conventional: a three act, three-handed, one set play. Yet Xia’s concept and Jeremy Herbert’s ingenious design keeps the play fresh. In doing away with the walls the stage becomes a boxing ring in which a power battle plays out. And the little pre-performance detour immerses us in the play’s issues. In fact, Xia does a lot to embed us within the setting of this play. To get to our seats (front row was a nice surprise!) we walked through a makeshift corridor, a realistic replica of an NHS mental health unit. Orange peel is strewn all over the easy clean floor, the décor is recognisably cold and sterile (completed with those familiar bulk-bought paintings), and screams echo from the neighbouring wards. The clinical smell transports you to hospital waiting rooms.
It’s interesting that Xia has chosen to keep the play’s setting in 2000; props include a bulky mobile phone and late-nineties pop songs such as Christina Aguilera’s ‘Genie in a Bottle’ are played into the auditorium pre-show. Characters smoke which would perhaps be more difficult to get around post-smoking ban, but that, to me, is not the reason why the setting hasn’t been updated. Instead, setting a play which is still so horribly relevant today in the year 2000 is a stark reminder of what is still wrong with mental health services in this country.
Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) has been confined to a psychiatric hospital, yet as he is only a Section 2, his 28 days are up and he’s itching to get out. However, junior doctor, Bruce (Luke Norris), believes Christopher to be showing symptoms of schizophrenia - oranges appear to him to be blue, and he is convinced his father is former Ugandan President, Idi Amin - and in urgent need of help. Bruce wants a Section 3 order. The problem arises when Bruce’s supervisor, consultant Robert (David Haig), appears keen to be rid of Christopher – the hospital lacks beds, Christopher has thus far only be diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder – and instead treat him as an outpatient. What becomes apparent is that Robert’s motives are much more personal. Believing there to be a connection between race, culture and perceived ‘madness’, he is eager to complete his research book, using Christopher as a case study.
I found myself wanting to see more of Kaluuya’s intense Christopher – by turns, frustrating, charming, intimidating and pitiable – he is really just a bit part, a pawn in the doctors’ manipulative games of one-upmanship. Over the course of the play Christopher becomes increasingly sidelined (literally, he is confined to skulking around the moat-pit surrounding the stage), a mere afterthought to the two doctors’ petty squabbles, work politics taking precedence over patient well-being. Robert revels in the power he holds, he is ‘the Authority’, and skews events to assert his superiority, while Bruce becomes progressively manic as any control he had over his patient - and his career - slips from his hands. Penhall’s script simultaneously invites laughter and anger, Haig in particular milks the comic opportunities for all their worth. Yet, the comedic tone highlights the frustrations central to the plot, we laugh because we cannot logically comprehend the injustices before us. The absurdity of everyday hierarchies and systems of authority are laid bare.
There are elements of Robert’s argument that resonate – it would be foolish to indiscriminately treat all patients the same, regardless of race, gender, age etc. and consequential, environmental factors regarding mental health deserve to be positively recognised. However, vulgar comments, such as suggesting Christopher ‘go home and listen to some reggae music’, expose Robert’s bigotry and ignorant blindness toward the individual. Bruce’s incredulity is palpable, yet despite the soundness of his argument, his own personal aspirations lurk behind his rhetoric. Determined to one day make consultant, the naïve, sycophantic ‘arselicking’ of his senior wrestles with his resolve to do the right thing. Norris plays Bruce’s torn conscience with a great nervous energy, we get the sense that this young doctor is well intentioned but out of his depth, and all the while Robert looms over him, a reflection of the institutionalised corruption and self-interest that he may one day also embody.
There is some sense of hope offered at the end when an almost-defeated Bruce stands up to his senior, but the predominant feeling we came out of the theatre with was anger. Nonetheless, Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange remains an important and exhilarating play and this production is a must-experience revival.
Blue/Orange plays at the Young Vic until 2nd July