Wow. This production of Blue/Orange at the Young Vic is electric. It’s dynamic, challenging, wickedly funny and desperately sad. That a satire on our treatment of mental illness could be this biting yet this funny is an extraordinary achievement.
Admittedly, this is the first time I’ve seen Blue/Orange, which won Best New Play at the 2001 Olivier’s. Its writer, Joe Penhall, was rightly acclaimed for his work and its troubling the extent to which this play is still so relevant, fifteen years later.
Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya) is a patient who has been held under Section Two for thirty days. Todat is his last day in hospital – or at least that’s what he expects. But that doesn’t seem to be the conclusion of his consultant psychiatrist, Bruce (Luke Norris) a junior who thinks the patient should be moved into Section Three and given more treatment.
But how to manage that concern with not angering the patient? And, fundamentally, he doesn’t have the authority to make that call. Instead he has to defer to his larger-than-life senior consultant, Robert (David Haig) for approval. And that approval is not forthcoming. Instead, Robert sees a patient who would be far better in the community, far happier having purpose and direction. As Robert wryly observes, the longer patients stay in hospital, the harder it gets for them to return to the real world.
Is Robert being charitable? Is he being more understanding of the human condition? Or are there other pressures and motivations coming into play?
And from this minor disagreement, a full-force no-holds-barred confrontation develops between the two consultants as they battle over every shred of evidence possible to prove their point – all with a confused and complex Christopher caught between them.
And such is the brilliance in the writing that, what starts out as a confrontation about pressure for beds unravels into a clash which touches upon race and language, as well as medical ethics and the very definition and classification of mental illness.
That Christopher is a black man is no coincidence – black men are more likely to be sectioned than white men. Why is that? Is it racism? Do we put more black men into hospital because they are black? Or is there something in the way that society treats black men that results in their higher rate of developing mental illness? Which comes first?
Or is there something else at work here?
This is stunning writing from Joe Penhall. This is a tsunami of issues and ethics. And this is a terrific production, helmed by Matthew Xia, which showcases this play at its best. This is high energy, non-stop stuff, yet its depth and heart hits home.
The acting is superb – the constantly tilting balance of power is brilliantly brought to life by the three actors. David Haig grabs the attention because he’s such a big character, and he does have the best lines, but in no way does he overshadow he performance from the others.
Daniel Kaluuya is superb as Christopher, a man who seems to flip at the toss of a coin between someone who seems completely balanced to one who clearly needs more help. He’s charismatic, engaging – and then a split second later he’s brittle, cagey and sharp-tongued,
And Luke Norris gives a passionate performance as Bruce, a young, smart man almost battered to breaking point simply from being too committed to doing the right thing to back down.
It’s a simple set design from Jeremy Herbert – a low-key meeting room, suitably situated in limbo between the hospital ward and the freedom of the outside world – but its hues of blue and orange are astute and subtle. But also, it’s a layout that gives the actors plenty to work with, for this is not a sedate production with three men sitting in chairs discussing the merits of their argument – their dynamic movement swamps the stage and sweeps you along.
This production powers through its 2h 30 mins running time, not once losing the attention from the audience. Blue/Orange is gripping, funny and, tragically, full of almost unanswerable questions.
Young Vic, London to July 2, 2016
Tickets from £10