“Schizophrenia is the worst pariah. One of the last great taboos. People don’t understand it. They don’t want to understand it. It scares them. It depresses them. It is not treatable with glamorous and intriguing wonder drugs like Prozac or Viagra. It isn’t newsworthy. It isn’t curable. It isn’t heroin or ecstasy. It is not the preserve of rock stars and super models and hip young authors. It is not a topic of dinner conversation. Organised crime gets better press. They make movies about junkies and alcoholics and gangsters and men who drink too much, fall over and beat their woman until bubbles come out of her nose but schizophrenia is just not in the phone book”.
Daniel Bailey directs Joe Penhall’s Olivier Award-winning play ‘Blue/Orange’ for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. A powerful three-hander tackling the scope of racism within the mental health sector, the play pitches two of its characters against each other, trapping 24 year old patient Christopher in the centre.
Christopher suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. He suffers from paranoia and delusions. He thinks oranges are blue, and believes himself to be the son of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. After a 28-day stay in a psychiatric hospital, where he was receiving treatment from Bruce, Christopher packs his bags in anticipation of his release. Bruce, however, does not think Christopher is ready to leave, and plans to resection him, believing the character has undiagnosed schizophrenia. Enter Robert, Bruce’s superior who, more than aware of the hospital’s lack of beds, takes an opposing stance to Bruce. The two enter into a bitter power struggle – hopeless in this Catch 22 situation – arming themselves with acute medical jargon and intricate semantics, as their conflicting ideologies begin to compound upon Christopher, who grows less sure of himself by the minute.
In his professional debut, Ivan Oyik gives a masterfully mature performance as Christopher. Immediately compelling, his commanding presence impressively charismatic, his performance is pitched perfectly between comedy and tragedy – one minute, his audience is laughing, the next, hugely sympathetic, as Oyik skilfully flitters between a youthful boyish exuberance and jollity, and confusion, anxiety, depression, and fear. Ultimately, this very layered and human character, with as many aspects to his personality as there are segments to an orange, is stripped back, dehumanised, just another person, to be let down by a flawed system, a pawn in a medical complex.
Thomas Coombes’ Bruce and Richard Lintern’s Robert are driven by ambition and egotism. Often sat either side of Christopher, they become as a conflicting conscience, using Christopher as a pawn to further their own interests. Coombes’ Bruce appears to have a greater morality than Lintern’s Richard, and for the most part, enjoys a steady and solid relationship with Christopher, who likes him. In his first year of training, Bruce works by the book, and is very conscious of doing everything right. However, as the play progresses, we are forced to wonder, right by whom? Lintern’s expert consultant and wannabe Professor Robert is less concerned with acting by the book, instead placing focus merely on results, and in this case, a result is discharging a person, even if it means before they are not really ready, and may still pose a threat, to themselves and others. For Robert, it all boils down to expediency – “the path of least resistance” as, unlike Bruce, he takes, not the most moral or ethical route, but quite simply, the most convenient one. Both actors show a mastery over their language which, although littered with complex medical jargon, manage to mimic everyday speech. At times, their convincing arguments seem rational to us, reasonable even, but as their layers also are peeled back, we get a measure of their true motives, which do not have Christopher’s best interests at heart.
We learn that Bruce had recently taken Robert to the rugby. This game becomes a good analogy for the opposition between the two men. As opposing teams in a game of rugby, both strive to score goals. And yet, their tactics could not be more different. What is important, though, is that it is just a game, but one that impacts heavily upon the ball, in this case Christopher, who is tossed carelessly between the two, used simply as a means of scoring points.
Language plays a very important role in this production, but even more important, is the meaning behind the language. The play highlighting the importance of using the correct semantics, warning against the abuse of language. Strewn throughout the play are several misnomers, words that are no longer deemed accurate, or even appropriate, in conjunction with their supposed meaning (ie. crazy). Due to an improved understanding, it is widely acknowledged that we do not use certain words anymore, whilst more effective language has taken its place. For instance, Bruce explains that the term ‘schizophrenia’ is applied more widely than is accurate. In the past, the term was used to label those who seemed to display a ‘split personality’ – who were two things at once. However, now we have a greater understanding of this condition, and more fully understand what it is characterised by, the term ‘schizophrenia’ is no longer appropriate to use as often as it has been done in the past. So language is updated as the meaning becomes clear. Early on in the play, Robert says to Bruce, “my semantics are better than yours”. The entire play becomes this battle of words, which Robert and Bruce use to both attack and defend, inflicting verbal blows upon as they try to get on up on each other. Language sits at the very heart of this play, and writer Penhall examines the strengths and limitations of language when it comes to discussing and explaining racism and mental health.
Another thing that the play sets out to address is the notion of ‘labelling’, and the dangers associated with casual labelling. A limited understanding of something, or someone, can lead to it/them being labelled as one thing, as a means of making it/them easier to characterise, and hopefully, to understand. People are so easily labelled as ‘normal’, ‘sane’, ‘insane’, ‘schizophrenic’. However, before we are qualified to use such terms, we need to first understand the gravity and depth of their meaning. Those four terms in particular, that are used frequently within the play, are so hard to define. Therefore, how we can be sure of any accurate usage surrounding those terms when applied to a person? These labels, which are so often devoid of any true and accurate meaning, become a safety net to fall back upon when a more accurate term is lacking, used to label something or someone that we do not understand, or perceive as different, not fitting in with our idea of what we think is ‘normal’.
Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing stated, “Society values its normal man”.
What is ‘normal’?
“We spend our lives asking whether or not this or that person is to be judged normal, a ‘normal’ person, a ‘human’, and we blithely assume that we know what ‘normal’ is. What ‘human’ is” (Robert).
Until ‘normal’ has one firm meaning, a set definition, which likely it will never do, how can the term be used to appropriate and maximum effect? Who decides what is normal? How can it be defined? What is it?
The play warns us to “guard against ethnocentricity” – that is, “evaluating the situation according to your own specific cultural criteria”. All too often, people have preconceptions relating to ethnicity, and this is true even within the medical profession. According to Robert, “there is more mental illness amongst the Afro-Caribbean population in London that any other ethnic grouping. Why? Is it the way we’re diagnosing it. Is it us? Is it them? What’s causing it? What’s the answer? What’s the cure?”. Christopher is one of many young black men that have been sectioned into a mental health institution, becoming another statistic on the increasing scale. The term “black psychosis” comes into play within the production. Questions regarding the ethicality concerning diagnosis are raised. Is this the result of cultural convention? Does what is considered ‘normal’ differ across cultures, leading one culture to see the conventions of another as ‘abnormal’ thus unfairly leading to sectioning and committal to a mental institution? If so, is this not a form of racism, sectioning a person simply because what they do differs from those doing the sectioning, because they consider appears ‘abnormal’? Is a person, is Christopher, “unable to distinguish between realistic and utterly unrealistic notions because…what?… Because he’s black?”.
After all, if “sanity is a conditioned response to environmental stimuli”, surely our culture, our community, instils in us a preconceived conception of what is considered normal within that culture. So to view the conventions of another society as ‘abnormal’, as ‘unrealistic’, is not only racist, but highlights an ignorance of culture also.
The play makes a reference to French poet Paul Eluard’s 1929 poem, whose first line translates to, “The earth is blue like an orange”. As mentioned, Christopher believes oranges are blue. When asked by Bruce to peel an orange, he reveals that its inside is also blue. These two contrasting colours dominate Amelia Jane Hankin’s clinical set design, which recreates the interior of a psychiatrist’s work space. A minimalist room, it features only three chairs, and small coffee table, upon which sits a bowl of oranges, and a water cooler. The skeletal foundations of the room have also been peeled back, raised above the action below, opening up the stage to the audience. We become privy very intimate, and really quite confidential. Despite the scale and open plan of the space, the waiting room located to the left of the stage, and the bare white corridor leading away upstage, creates the illusion that this room is one of many, and that similar conversations are taking place in each one.
Robert tells Christopher to gain a “talent for simplicity”. However, the very title of the play encourages us to open our minds, to the possibility of seeing things, not as they are, but as Christopher sees them. With the brazen blue and orange hues of the set, we are in Christopher’s world, implored to see things from his perspective. When Christopher peels open an orange, revealing its inside to be blue also, the continuation of this colour mirrors the continuation of his thought processes. Be it thought projection, colour association, or conditioning, Christopher maintains that these oranges are in fact blue. As therapists, however, it is the profession of Robert and Bruce to analyse, to look for the symbolism and significance beneath the surface, so perhaps it is easy to overlook simplicity, in favour of complexity, as it is often a medical complexity around which their careers revolve.
We are under no delusions as to just how good a play this is.
To quote director Daniel Bailey, “great plays present questions, they don’t give you the answers, and this play does just that”.
A “provocative and (refreshingly) unorthodox” production, ‘Blue/Orange’ demystifies the stigma associated with mental health, establishing it as an appropriate and necessary topic for dinner party conversation.
A powerful examination of racism in mental institutions, a diagnosis of humanity, and a cure for medical pariahs.