Cuckoo’s Nest, Wilderness Festival, Oxfordshire – review

Sometimes you go to see a production that trumpets itself as an eccentric reworking of a classic, and leave feeling rather dull that you hadn’t previously seen the bold possibilities inherent in its unlikely premise. The Footsbarn Theatre adaptation of Ken Kesey’s seminal 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not one of those shows. Its aim is to render this often harrowing narrative of insanity and institutional control as a family-friendly performance: comic, musical, almost carnivalesque. But for all the production’s visual merits, the terrible power of Kesey’s story – set on a miserable, tyrannical psychiatric ward in Oregon – is lost under artistic director Paddy Hayter’s ambition, as the steady trickle of spectators creeping for the exit in the big top at last weekend’s Wilderness Festival attested.

Which is not to say that Footsbarn can’t command the ring. The international troupe is at its best when let loose with loud set-pieces that chime with the bawdy interludes provided by Kesey’s novel. The patients’ illicit after-hours ward party is a delight of well-timed slapstick, and their unsupervised fishing trip is a joyful affair – splicing clownish film footage of their misadventures with hearty group sing-alongs in an impressive on-stage boat. Such scenes fittingly illustrate brawler Randle McMurphy’s impassioned plea to the other patients on being committed to the ward: “When you lose your laugh you lose your footing.”

Laughter is not lost here; what is lacking is any foil to convey the true sense of its power. In this adaptation Nurse Ratched (Hayter) – a woman of such calm cruelty that her name has become a byword for pitiless authority – sometimes seems boomingly commanding, but often simply flustered. The choice to play her in drag might have been intended as comment on the problematic portrayal of women in the book, but given her surroundings the effect veers more towards pantomime dame.

The production is lifted by its visual impact. Human-sized puppets sit slumped around the ward, their faces masks of passive despair. As McMurphy brings the ward to life, the puppets seem to live too – emerging from wheelchairs to waltz with the revellers. And when the presumed-mute Chief Bromden steps out of the shadows to narrate the tale, projections from his story interact seamlessly with the looming faces of actors standing behind the screen. But audiences cannot live on visual trickery alone, and this adaptation lacks the psychological intensity needed to underpin its unconventional approach and do justice to the story.

Next showing at Carruan Farm, Cornwall, August 16-31,

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