Writer: Joe Penhall
Director: James Dacre
Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange is a stylistic and hard-hitting contemporary play. First performed in April 2000 at The National Theatre before a run in the West End and later being made into a TV film for the BBC, this current revival is a joint production through the Royal and Derngate and the Oxford Playhouse with Theatre Royal Bath Productions.
Whilst witty and extremely funny at times, Blue/Orange deals with some hard-hitting issues such as institutional racism and borderline personality disorder and it does so in a balanced and considerate manner. It also touches on psychiatry and the way that the system deals with mental illness, the health system itself, as well as ambition, masculinity and power.
Rather than being a medical drama, the narrative concerns itself far more with the nuances of human interaction. We see the dynamics of institutional as well as personal power play out in the relationships formed between mental patient Christopher and his two doctors. Subtle manipulations and power plays present themselves in each of the relationships that we see unfold. Each of the three men manipulates and dominates the action at different points throughout the narrative and what we see is a beautifully orchestrated power struggle throughout, which leaves no clear victim or indeed victor. In addition, there is no distinguishable villain in this piece, which adds to the psychological complexity of the narrative in a way that will leave audiences debating its subject matter long after the play has ended. The tension builds in a slow drip-feed as we witness the flaws of both doctors unfold and the integrity of their actions come into question.
Simon Kenny has put together a sleek yet highly functional set. It has all the soulless and intimidating structure of the institution in which it is set: it’s nondescript with plain imposing walls, three plain metal chairs, a coffee table with a bowl of oranges, a bin, and a water cooler. Everything visible has a functional purpose and adds contextual value to the play. For example, the oranges are significant within the quarrel between the doctors. When Christopher asserts that the oranges are blue, both Bruce and Robert seek to rationalise this and win their respective case; however, Christopher confirms neither theory whilst the oranges remain ever present centre stage as a symbol.
All the action takes place within a lit square, not too dissimilar to a boxing ring. The show’s design is the perfect metaphor for the narrative itself, a verbal sparring match between two doctors and their patient. The lighting is simple with a strip light marking the boundary of the action and a clock projection signifying the start of each new round. It is staged simply with minimal movement, yet it feels vibrant and exciting. All pace and tone changes are delivered with surgical precision by way of the spoken word.
Michael Balogun takes on the role of Christopher and plays him with exceptional sensitivity and fearsome power. This is a layered and empathetic portrayal of a very complex and demanding character who happens to have a little understood medical condition. His physicality is nuanced and fluid, flitting between the manic fidgeting and the slumped silent withdrawal within scenes: it is all considered and beautifully placed. His chemistry with the other two actors is earnest and it truly feels as if a door has been left open and an intimate private discussion between this man and his doctors is being looked upon.
Robert Davis plays Bruce, the empathetic young doctor with ambitions of becoming a consultant. He begins the first act with a relaxed, if not overly familiar, manner with Balogun’s Christopher and it quickly becomes clear that he is overly emotionally invested in this patient. Bruce’s motives, whilst hoping that Robert, his mentor would notice him, do at first seem to genuinely be rooted in the wellbeing of his patient. But is he just using Christopher as a pawn to climb the career ladder? Davis gives an assured performance and bounces brilliantly off the other two actors in the cast.
Giles Terera takes on the role of Robert, the arrogant consultant who steps in to oversee Christopher’s care. He truly embodies the presumptuous and quietly devious nature of this character. Traditionally, this play is performed with the premise of a black man torn between a chess match between two white doctors. By casting a black actor in this role, the dynamic of the play is changed. His assertion that black men are misdiagnosed by the system which is institutionally racist hits harder than if delivered by a white doctor. A level of empathy is afforded as he speaks with conviction. Although he has reached a level of success and a position of power, the impression is given that he, too, has experienced the barriers of which he talks.
Terera gives a masterclass in acting for stage. His character whilst maintaining all the authority and respect of a consultant is sly and devious. Ultimately his goals, like those of Bruce, are self-serving. Strong and commanding in this role, Terera masterfully executes a string of coercive manipulations whilst maintaining an air of unfailing professionalism.
This is a riveting production which is beautifully paced.
Runs until 4 December 2021 and touring