Christopher, a (black) 24-year-old market trader, finally has reason to be hopeful. Having been sectioned under the Mental Health Act for a fruit-related indiscretion at work, he is on the eve of the end of his statutory 28 days’ care and holding onto the promise of a return home.
It soon transpires that life as a sufferer of mental illness, let alone one of African-descent, isn’t so black and white. Christopher’s fate lies in the hands of two (white) doctors, consultant psychiatrist Robert and trainee doctor Bruce in his first month on the job, and their professional verdict of his condition. Either a return to his White City community (one in which he feels threatened and alone) or a more serious medical diagnosis (with the accompanying Section 3) awaits, with Christopher caught in the ensuing political crossfire.
Blue/Orange was famously conceived as a play of ideas. Penhall’s turn-of-the-century satire has won every theatre award worth winning as it moves and provokes in equal measure on issues surrounding race and the dichotomy and treatment of mental illness, both institutionally and culturally. In doing so it has spent the last ten years asking and exploring big, important questions of us all, many of which are still prevalent today. Luscombe’s interpretation is equally a play about power: three powerless characters, the power of suggestion and manipulation, and a dogged power struggle throughout.
It makes for an intense and engrossing affair. Even from Row B of the Upper Dress Circle.
On the one hand, junior doctor Bruce (Gerard McCarthy) shares our journey of care and disbelief as his passionate ideals conflict with the sportsmanship of the system. On the other, Robert’s (Robert Bathurst) cynical ambition and pragmatic tongue seeks to undermine Bruce at every opportunity and put Christopher on the path of least resistance for his own gain. Their clear divide of duty of care, between patient, institution, and their own careers, become cloudier as the play progresses. Lastly, Oliver Wilson is masterfully electric as Christopher, erupting from moments of calm and then back again in an instant as dictated by his condition. All three cast vulnerable characters on stage who often display the same symptoms, leading us to question who or what really constitutes “normal”. The regular interjections of wit are delivered with as much pace as the rest of the dialogue, keeping the audience constantly on their toes.
Much of Blue/Orange’s success is invested in its simplicity: as much to do with what’s not on stage as what is. The mystery of Christopher’s back story, the doctors’ hidden agendas, the correct diagnosis, and of course the final outcome all make the audience work for answers and pass judgments of their own. A sterile set and travailler à trois means a lot is demanded of the dialogue and the actors too. Thankfully, they more than deliver.
It is a polished performance of what is a highly dysfunctional situation, with faultless chemistry amongst the trio. Pace and tension build from scene to scene after a series of explosive interchanges and personal revelations yet the closer we get to the characters the more of a mystery they become. The whole play is rather unsettling, and better for it.
It purposely alarms and awakens your mind with enough big questions that it’s thereon incapable of reverting back to its original dimensions. As emotional as it is intelligent, Grand Opera House’s Blue/Orange is one for those who seek to be challenged.
Blue/Orange is at Grand Opera House until 13 October 2012.