How do you solve a problem like McMurphy? Let’s face it the protagonist of Ken Kesey’s 1962 counter-cultural novel is not all that nice a guy. The reason he gets himself committed to a mental institution is to avoid a stint on the work farm following charges of statutory rape: “She was 15,” he pleads in his defence.
Indelibly played on screen by Jack Nicholson, he’s a charismatic arsehole who, in attempting to game the system, ends up uniting a group of broken men.
In his astute, tech-savvy show The Believers Are But Brothers, Sheffield Theatres’ associate director Javaad Alipoor explored the way in which culturally engrained ideas about masculinity can be damaging. It’s easy to see what drew him to this material. He’s clearly alert to and interested in the text’s problematic elements – to the way that women are depicted as crushers of spirits and the embodiment of the capitalist machine, and the way that sex or the lack of it is made out to be the root of most of these men’s instability.
Joel Gillman’s McMurphy is all strut and swagger. When he sits on a chair, he does so in a manner that suggests he has a couple of cannon balls in his pants. He’s wiry and energetic, but crude too, his rebelliousness edged with desperation.
Jenny Livsey, performing script in hand after stepping into the role of Nurse Ratched at incredibly short notice after Lucy Black was forced to withdraw due to injury, is impressively formidable but also far from being a monster. She’s a woman who believes in order and feels, with justification, that McMurphy is a dangerously disruptive force. Given the circumstances, Livsey does an astonishing job and she will only grow into the role.
There’s some superb ensemble work on display here, particularly from Jack Tarlton as the effete, yet volatile Harding and Arthur Hughes as the nervy, virginal Billy Bibbit. As in the book, Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation is narrated by the towering, taciturn Native American Chief Bromden, and Jeremy Proulx ensures this character is more than just a device. His gradual awakening is moving to watch.
Designer Lucy Osborne has created a set of institutional bleakness with two mesh nurses’ stations on one side of the stage and a latrine on the other. McMurphy is shown violently dragging the ‘Big Nurse’ into this room when he loses his cool at the end, presumably to rape her.
The big group scenes are the most effective – particularly the iconic moment when McMurphy wins the men’s vote to watch the World Series, only for Nurse Ratched to shut off the TV, and the final, anarchic, ill-fated party.
But in resisting the urge to put McMurphy up on a rebel pedestal, reinforcing some of the uglier aspects of his character, and exploring the undercurrent of sexual aggression in the text, Alipoor’s thoughtful production also robs itself of some of its dramatic propulsion and emotional impact.