Theatre review: Blue/Orange

by **

Dear Dad

I recollect commenting on this blog — incidentally in a review of another Mockingbird Theatre production — that we should not gasp at abhorrent attitudes halfway round the globe, but instead examine our own. Now the Theatre’s brilliant staging of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange calls on us to do the same.

Bruce, a fresh and inexperienced psychiatrist, is assessing the mental fitness of his charge, Christopher, who is about to be released from hospital — and he has deep reservations. Bruce suspects the young black man, who calls Idi Amin his father, suffers not from the benign borderline personality disorder officially documented, but from something more sinister.

Robert, a senior consultant and Bruce’s mentor, stops by for a fleeting visit. But when he realises Bruce’s intentions of retaining Christopher for further monitoring, the self-declaring veteran tries to forestall him. He warns his younger colleague against, amongst other things, straining the chronic shortage of hospital beds.

This is a fascinating, if disturbing, meditation on mental illness, race, modern society’s hypocrisy, and power. And it is played with the colour and the passion of a work of abstract painting in Chris Baldock’s luminous production.

Baldock and his superb cast demonstrate the action is not so much in incidents, but in the strength of discourse. Bruce and Robert debate vehemently about the best treatment for Christopher: while Bruce calls for proper diagnosis, Robert questions the wisdom of sentencing him to a life of stigma with the taboo label of schizophrenia; and as Bruce seizes on every oddity to validate his suspicions — Christopher sees oranges as blue — Robert cautions against ethnocentrism, finding excuses for the patient’s peculiarities at every turn.

On the surface, the narrative depicts the battle between (textbook) idealism and (institution) expediency, the influence of power, and how mental health ends up as the ultimate casualty. However, the play’s underlying preoccupations with race and sanctimony soon mingle with the more obvious observations.

Richard Edge gives a perfectly-pitched performance as the suave and dapper Robert: we move from detesting his smarmy efforts to bring his protégé on side, to gradually understanding his seemingly liberal perspectives, before feeling utterly disgusted again with his selfish treachery.

Christian Heath plays Bruce with the fiery conviction of a new believer. Until he succumbs to the threat on his budding career — deftly transforming from the righteous doctor to the oleaginous subordinate — we admire his resolute determination to carry out his profession, and urge for increased awareness of mental illness.

And Kane Felsinger’s Christopher is absolutely compelling as the patient in the middle. His seamless slipping between moments of flat denial and startling lucidity is indubitably symptomatic of Bruce’s worst fears.

Yet on closer reflection, I find myself wondering why I have so readily considered behavioural disorders in Robert and Bruce to constitute the more socially acceptable “neurosis”, while at the same time judging disorders — albeit more intense — in Christopher as “psychosis”. It leaves me mortified to recognise that race, perhaps, might just have something to do with it. Am I not also, like others, culpable of using the values and standards of the mainstream culture to make pronouncements about people from a minority group?

This is a rich staging that suggests for all the fair-mindedness we think we possess, we are more sanctimonious than we care to admit.