Interview: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Javaad Alipoor and Lucy Black

Over four decades since the seminal film hit the big screen, Sheffield Theatres are bringing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the Crucible Stage.

Ken Kesey’s era-defining 1962 novel tells the tale of the charismatic Randle McMurphy, a convicted criminal who feigns insanity to avoid jail and opts to spend his sentence on a psychiatric ward in the care of the authoritarian Nurse Ratched. Exposed sat down with award-winning director Javaad Alipoor and actress Lucy Black to discuss how the story has maintained its cultural relevance over the years.

What was it about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that made you want to bring it to the Crucible?
J: I was really conscious of the fact that this was the first time I was directing on the Crucible stage. A lot of the stuff I’ve been making over the past couple of years is about gender relations and toxic masculinity and it’s become a bit like ‘if you want a play about a grotty man, pick up the phone and call Javaad!’ So yeah, we threw a bunch of stuff backwards and forwards and the one title that stood out as a piece that didn’t have immediate productions in line and was a fresh thing to get hold of was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

So, Lucy, your character Nurse Ratched is seen as the embodiment of oppression in the story. How have you found taking on such an iconic role?
L: It’s hard because there are a lot of preconceptions about Nurse Ratched as a character and it’s actually quite difficult to let them go. But I’m just looking at the character as a woman who’s good at her job, who’s very competent and as someone who has sacrificed a lot to be where she is in her profession. I was asked earlier if I had thought about drawing on anybody and I hadn’t really but then realised that my mum was a psychiatric nurse for a while but she stopped doing it because she found it too difficult. So I actually have a lot of admiration for my character. She makes choices that people can perceive as being wrong but I need to find out why she makes those choices, and that doesn’t mean they necessarily come from a bad place.

She certainly manages to maintain order.
L: Yeah, and interestingly the only perception you have of her in the story is from men.

I didn’t think of it that way…
L: It definitely influences the way she is perceived – the way the men talk about her and describe her character.
J: This is a play that at some monumental level fails the Bechdel test. It doesn’t even turn up for the Bechdel exam.

“She makes choices that people can perceive as being wrong but I need to find out why she makes those choices, and that doesn’t mean they necessarily come from a bad place.” © Sam Taylor

Does the play attempt to put a new spin or offer up new ways for characters such as Ratched to be perceived?
J: I think it’s quite interesting for us because we’ve tried to look the story in the eye and not in the easy way of it being an evil order ran by this evil woman and then this charming figure comes in and subverts the rules. If you look this story in the eye, it’s got many more complicated and troubling things to say about masculinity, gender and comparing what women have to do in a world that is dominated by men. Take Ratched for example. In the period we’re talking about, her job is one of few that exist at that level for clever, talented women with some drive to get themselves into a leadership position. So she is actually somebody who has got a lot to lose.

Almost like she has to be so ruthless simply to survive?
L: Yes, and I think a lot of what is perceived as her coldness is actually about self-preservation. It’s about being an authoritative figure but also taking care of yourself. I think a woman that isn’t instantly seen as being caring and adoring is often perceived as being a bitch. But that’s just a perception and doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what is actually happening.
J: For me, I think there’s a different way to view the story. So: if you look at the novel and the play I think there are ways of reading it where it’s not a hero/anti-hero story. This play is in that great genre of stories about institutions. It’s about the relationship individuals have with institutions, what price individuals will pay to belong, what they’re not willing to pay to belong, what they will do if the institution doesn’t give them the space they want. So if you break it down in the play almost everyone is part of the arch of the story. Everyone has a story about something that’s been taken away from them by the institution.
L: Also, Nurse Ratched isn’t the head of the institution – she’s the head nurse on the ward but there are people above her. It’s important to look at the whole institution as being responsible and not just this one woman.

“It’s about the relationship individuals have with institutions, what price individuals will pay to belong…”

McMurphy is the character who comes along and challenges the institution and is often viewed as a hero by audiences and readers, even though his traits aren’t necessarily hero-like. Why do you think that is?
L: I don’t think McMurphy is necessarily a hero in the piece. I just think it’s his nature and his character and the energy that he brings into the place. Everybody loves a bit of a wildcard, somebody who stands up to the big man and I think he brings in his liveliness and that’s why the other patients and the audience let themselves love him. You find yourself forgetting that he’s been accused of rape.
J: I think that’s interesting because that’s when it starts to become about masculinity and how men can share a complicity in sexual abuse and sexual violence and that’s how they bond. That’s a really interesting thing to play with, especially given that the audience are expecting to come in and be like ‘there’s our hero’. I just think that it’s an interesting thing especially in these times, with the #MeToo campaign and so on, for people to watch the play and maybe see a different perspective.

Is there anything in particular you want the audience to take away from this play?
J: For me, it’s really obvious. I like it when people argue about my stuff in the bar afterwards, when they let it challenge them mand have it kicking around in their heads for a while. A lot of my stuff has political aspects to it and, as well as being entertained, I like my audience to come out the other side thinking that they’re a bit more connected and onboard with things they used to maybe think they weren’t too well rehearsed in.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs at the Crucible Theatre from 8-23 June

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