Ensemble Theatre, October 29
Written by British playwright Joe Penhall (who grew up in Australia), Blue/Orange is a fierce comedy bursting with conflicting ideas about mental illness, its diagnosis and its treatment. Premiered by London’s National Theatre in 2000, it is given three exemplary performances in this impressive Ensemble Theatre production.
Christopher (Dorian Nkono), a young black Londoner, is 24 hours away from being released from a psychiatric hospital. The police sectioned him after an “incident” at a market but legally he can only be held for 28 days and he can’t wait to get out. In fact, he is climbing the walls – even without the coffee and coke he craves.
Christopher has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder but Bruce (Ian Meadows), a young trainee psychiatrist who has been treating him, suspects that he is actually a paranoid schizophrenic and wants to keep him at the hospital to do more tests.
He asks his mentor Robert (Sean Taylor), a senior doctor, to sit in on one of their sessions. But instead of supporting Bruce, Robert is dismissive. He is writing a book about “black psychosis” in which he argues that ethnic and cultural factors play more of a role in mental illness that is recognised and argues that growing up black and poor in Britain could go a long way to explaining Christopher’s problem. Besides, he needs the bed for other patients.
Soon the two doctors are at loggerheads. Robert insists Christopher be allowed to go home – even though it becomes clear that he has no home or family to go to. Bruce fights tooth and nail to change Robert’s mind, fearful that Christopher is a danger to himself and others.
As for Christopher, he thinks his father is Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and that the oranges in the room are blue.
Blue/Orange is passionately written. The arguments swing back and forth and Penhall keeps us wondering about the true state of Christopher’s mental health. At times though it feels overwritten, with dialogue turning into big, weighty speeches that feel imposed on the drama.
A couple of the twists don’t ring totally true and it’s hard to believe that the two doctors would argue so vehemently about Christopher in front of him, as they do at times. Robert also feels a tad too overtly Machiavellian. But then the play is also very much about power and ego, with the two doctors shown to be more interested in their own careers than Christopher.
Running two hours and twenty minutes (including interval) Blue/Orange would be sharpened by an edit. But the writing is so robust, and laced with so much humour, that it keeps you thoroughly engaged – especially when performed as well as it is here.
Anna Crawford directs a brisk, well-paced production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that contrasts a bland room with a large sculptural backdrop at the heart of which is a round void (somewhat reminiscent of an Anish Kapoor void) onto which coloured light is projected (a visual metaphor for Christopher’s confused perceptions).
Taylor is perfectly cast as Robert, capturing his patrician, easy swagger and enunciating each word with crisp precision in his seductively rumbling voice. But his charm becomes almost sinister as he is revealed to be patronising, bitter and manipulative.
Meadows is equally persuasive as the decent, passionate but inexperienced Bruce who speaks his mind with injudicious frankness, and Nkono is wonderful as Christopher, hyper-active one minute, forlorn and touchingly vulnerable the next. Remaining somewhat enigmatic throughout, Nkono’s Christopher certainly defies easy diagnosis, showing how hard it can be to recognise and treat mental illness – particularly when there are other agendas at play.
It’s a fascinating play that would probably be even stronger with an edit but nonetheless it still packs a considerable punch.
Blue/Orange is at the Ensemble Theatre until November 29. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644