Mockingbird Theatre’s stinging satire about a patient (claiming to be the son of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin) caught in the middle of two warring egos
Mockingbird Theatre’s ambitious eight-programme 2013 season kicks off with a bang with the premiere of Blue/Orange. Directed with humour and aplomb by Chris Baldock, this tragi-comedy is a story of psychosis and control in millennium London, in the face of the flailing National Health Service.
Writer Joe Penhall’s scene is a psychiatric hospital where two doctors engage in an age-old Darwinian endurance struggle. The catalyst for their clash is Christopher (Kane Felsinger), a perplexingly disordered patient, sometimes unstable – seeing blue oranges and claiming to be the son of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin – yet sometimes articulate, lucid and quietly perceptive as the doctors wrangle over his treatment and make decisions about his fate.
Senior Consultant Robert (Richard Edge), who has a single-minded ambition to become ‘Professor’, adopts a laissez-faire attitude. He wants Christopher plunged back into council housing and treated as an out-patient after his Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. Then there's Bruce (Christian Heath), a young graduate program doctor, who enthusiastically maintains that Christopher is presenting as schizophrenic and needs further treatment before being released back into the community.
What follows is a ferocious contest of ego and wills, and part of the play’s engagement lies in shifting sympathies. One second it seems Bruce is exhibiting caring idealism; the next that Robert is showing protective good judgment. Slowly it becomes transparent that both are less concerned with tending to the (clearly ill) patient, than with reaffirming themselves and their own agendas.
The battle between the two doctors, a quick-witted and highbrow catfight in which linguistics and insults are the weapons, reduces Christopher even more, as he comes and goes from the consulting room where the doctors argue. What’s apparent, throughout, is just how acutely the play hangs on wickedly sardonic language. “It’s semantics,” Robert tells Bruce. “And right now my semantics are better than your semantics. So I win.” It’s wordy, garrulous, but oh so biting, as Penhall’s stinging satire on the arrogant assertion of professional experience is laid bare. The doctors are left smarting time and again from pointed punch lines while Christopher’s welfare is overlooked in the skirmish.
The staging takes a sparse and uncluttered approach with just a water cooler, two Philippe Starke Ghost chairs and the eponymous bowl of fruit. The realisation and triumph of a play as subtly distilled as Blue/Orange relies principally upon the deftness of the players, and it is here that Mockingbird Theatre excels.
Christian Heath plays the junior doctor superbly with a youthful gaucheness which runs the gamut of bewilderment to naked aggression and panicked self-preservation when his own ambition and professional livelihood is threatened. Kane Felsinger’s authentic portrayal of a young man on the margins (in every sense of the word) deftly manages to be both funny and terribly heartbreaking. Richard Edge impresses with his disconcertingly impervious portrayal of the literature-quoting, public-school boy with something to prove, whose suave indifference is a façade for his piercing ambition – he realises that Christopher could prove useful to his work-in-progress book on developing procedures for diagnosing patients from the African diaspora.
Blue/Orange functions primarily as a play of ideas, yet it is also incredibly emotionally impactful as it peels back the layers of the male psyche to expose the inherent egoism. Baldock has taken Penhall’s script about the very real issues of culturally oppressed minorities and the racial profiling of mental illness and dealt with it in a way that is relatable, provocative, stimulating and poignant – and very, very funny.