Blue/Orange: London Theatre Tour Part 1 of 6
A Whole Lot of Substance inside a Blue Orange
A last minute addition to our overly scheduled 6 nights/6 theatrical performances theatre tour of London was an unexpected powerhouse of a show at the wonderful Young Vic. I was thrilled that we were able to get tickets to the last day’s matinee performance of Joe Penhall’s terrific play, Blue/Orange, first performed 16 years ago, and I was very thankful to my London buddy for arranging it (It first premiered in April 2000 at the Cottesloe Theatre starring Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and transferred to the West End the following year). Weaving our way to our seats, the designer, Jeremy Herbert lead us through a chaotic therapeutic conference room littered with orange peel and plastic cups. This preview, which turns out to be a replica of the very set that is directly above, gave me (who is, by trade, a psychotherapist/social worker) quite a strong connection and reaction to what we were about to be witness to. And this play does not let us down.
Christopher, a young disturbed black man has been institutionalized for erratic behavior, and is up for his 28 day release from a NHS psychiatric hospital. It is fairly obvious that he is suffering from bipolar disorder, but to what extent is the question. He says the orange is blue, and his father is Idi Amin. Bruce, a low level therapist, believes he is unwell and possibly dangerous. He thinks Christopher is unfit to be released at this time, while his supervisor/mentor, Robert tells Bruce quite clearly to release him immediately, and without hesitation. At first, this play starts out with the very traditional financial/healthcare conflict model that says, ‘we don’t have the beds nor the resources to keep him here, he’s just not that mentally ill’ but very quickly a number of other dynamics and conflicts begin to raise their ugly heads. We, the audience, must now start struggling with and untangling other more complex concepts, such as race, power, ethics, and ethnocentric preconceived notions of outside influences on other ethnicities that differ from the therapist’s. That mouthful sounds like a thesis in the making, and maybe it is, thinks Robert. But we are given the task of trying to figure out where we stand in this ever changing construction and argument. No small wonder this set looks a bit like a therapeutic boxing ring (design: Jeremy Herbert; lighting: Adam Silverman). The gloves quickly come off, and the fight is on between these two white mental health practitioners, with Christopher being used as a tool and his fate becoming the prize.
In this perfectly crafted play, impeccably directed by Matthew Xia, each of these characters gets a moment to shine and state their case emphatically. Christopher (spectacularly played by Daniel Kaluuya) displays with devastation accuracy the obvious and intense bipolar disorder and extreme paranoia, but Kaluuya also is able to show a smart, lonely, and angry man who may understand what is going on around him to a much greater degree then believed, and knowingly seems to be able to exploit this power/ego battle to facilitate his needs. He also gives us, with the help from Robert, a strong argument that, although he is well aware of his mental illness, Christopher fears for his own worsening mental state if he is left inside the walls of this psychiatric hospital surrounded by more severely mentally ill patients. It’s a powerful construct, but one that is equally balanced by Bruce’s view that one shouldn’t wait until Christopher actually causes harm before he is seen as a threat to himself or others, a clear criteria for keeping him institutionalized. And Kaluuya gives us ample moments for us to agree with Bruce’s assessment.
But mixed up in Luke Norris’s artful portrayal of Bruce is also an intense and complicated power struggle and questionable authority issues with his mentor and the senior consulting doctor, Robert. Luke Norris gives Robert a towering powerful ego driven supervisor who is also a power-hungry doctor who is desperate to rise up the institutional and professional ladder. He demands to be placed on a pedestal by the ones he supervises, and definitely not argued with. In some ways, the cards seem to be against us having much sympathy for this man and the position he takes, but a few moments in Robert’s argument for Christopher’s release I did find myself agreeing with him. Christopher does seem like he would become a ‘lifer’ if he is confined much longer in the psychiatric hospital; a sentence that would definitely have a negative impact on his capacity for improvement. All the while, we start to see alternative selfish and ego driven motives for Robert to ‘win’ this debate with Bruce.
It’s an epic battle where all three have much at stake, and oddly enough, Christopher’s well being and future life seem to lose importance as the battle progresses. This struck deep into my core as both a professional psychotherapist, and as an audience member. We are left trying to untangle this mess and figure out what is the best outcome for Christopher and the society in general, and who should and who will win this war. It’s an electrifying play, and a great way to start my London theatrical binge.