ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST
THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO
Al-Ahram Weekly (the national newspaper of Egypt)
With a cast of 17 extremely talented, dedicated and highly disciplined young people, a superb artistic crew led by stage and lighting designer Stancil Campbell, costume designer Jeanne Arnold and sound designer Dave Tawfik, and the generous, committed assistance of 'over one hundred students who,' according to the director's notes in the program, were 'directly involved in mounting One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Mark 'Coach' Mineart, a new and most welcome addition to the brilliant staff of the AUC Performing Arts Department, did not only give his audience a powerful, alternately funny and profoundly disturbing production and a thrilling, memorable theatrical experience, but has also made a valuable, long overdue contribution to theatre in Egypt.
That the play was performed in English does not make it any less a part of the Egyptian theatrical heritage. For, to my mind, any play mounted in Egypt by a predominantly Egyptian group of artists for a predominantly Egyptian audience automatically becomes part of the history and heritage of the Egyptian theatre, even if it is a foreign one, performed in its original language. It is only when seen in the context of the Egyptian performances I mentioned above, as part of a tradition of setting plays in mental hospitals that began in the 1980s, that one can fully appreciate both the artistic, cultural and, indeed, political value of Mineart's production.
Staged at a time when Egypt, having just overthrown one repressive, restrictive and conformist regime, or 'Combine', to use Chief Bromden's word, seems in imminent danger of being saddled with an even more oppressive, more mind-crushing one, Dale Wasserman's play cannot fail to hit a chord at a deep, personal level with liberal Egyptians at this moment. It came across as a strong, poignant warning of the waves of darkness that could soon engulf us. The hospital on stage, ruled over the insidious, artificially gracious and brutally vindictive Nurse Ratched (or Ratshit, as the charmingly rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy, half Christ and half con-man, abusively calls her), was a concrete image of Thomas Szasz's 'vastly elaborate control system, using both brute force and subtle indoctrination, which disguises itself under the claims of scientificity.' Watching the performance, I could easily imagine this indomitable figure in her white nurse's coat easily replaced with a bearded Salafi, in a white galabiyya and skull cap, manipulating an equally elaborate control system which, in this case, would disguise itself under the claims of 'religionism', or, rather, 'religiosity'. What a frightful prospect!
The end of the performance, however, though emotionally harrowing, with the incorrigibly defiant, infectiously cheerful, energetic McMurphy wheeled in, silent and motionless, in a vegetative state after receiving a lobotomy, is not quite bereft of hope. Though the revolt leader is vanquished, his pupil breaks free to continue defying the 'Combine'. Indeed, I do not think I could have borne the pain and horror of watching Chief Bromden smother the lobotomized McMurphy, in an act of mercy and to rob his oppressors of their victory, crying in anguish all the while, were it not for the immediate emotional release provided by his lifting the massive hydrotherapy console off the floor, as McMurphy had previously urged him to do, and hurling it through the barred window to climb through to freedom. It was an emotionally liberating act, and though we realize that Bromden's freedom is only temporary, that the 'Combine' will soon catch up with him and engage him in battle, we are nevertheless reassured that people, however simple, marginalised, or brutalized, can still resist oppression, conformity, and totalitarianism and defy the forces that seek to demoralise and dehumanize them. This gave me hope for the future of Egypt.
Technically, in terms of direction, scenery, costumes, lighting and sound, Mineart's production was clear, uncluttered, seamlessly smooth, alternately harsh and poetic and always powerfully evocative. He achieved what he set out to do. In his Director's Notes, he tells the audience: 'I hope the play transports you today. I hope that like the pages of a good book, the framework disappears and you are taken someplace. Where? Well, that is for you and the Story to work out between you.' And the framework did disappear, at least for this one viewer; and the play did transport me from the insane asylum in Oregon, where the action is set, to several moments in Egyptian history. But powerful as Wasserman's text is, and haunting as the scenery and sound effects were, for this play to work, a strong ensemble cast was absolutely essential. And it is in this respect that Mineart as director should be heartily congratulated. Despite the limited choice age-wise, most of the actors were reasonably suited to their parts in terms of voice, physique, and general mien and acted with conviction, precision and flair.
Particularly happy was his casting of Adham James Haddara as McMurphy. I had recently seen Haddara as the 'Vampire' in Frank Bradley's AUC production of Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, and before that as 'Vershinin' in Bradley's production of Chekhov's Three Sisters. Seeing him here as the roguish, charismatic, vainglorious but also tender and ultimately vulnerable McMurphy with suitable panache, childish arrogance and affectionate warmth, I became convinced of the immense range of his acting talent. But individual performances in this play count far less than smooth, unselfish, rhythmically harmonious ensemble acting. It is no less a credit to the actors than to their director that their ensemble performance was quite convincing, profoundly moving, finely orchestrated and delicately tuned. They gave us a performance that cannot be easily forgotten and I thank them deeply for making me leave the theatre hoping that, after all, Egypt may perhaps just manage to fly over the cuckoo's nest.
This is the spot in the program where the director gives you more information about, and explains his or her ideas on, a play he or she didn’t write. Very like the forward to a book.
I loathe forwards to books.
I find that they almost certainly do (at least) one of three things: they give a bunch of academic information that makes me feel like I should have studied before I picked up the book to begin with, or, they discuss important events that happen in the book (this is the same book I have not even gotten a chance to start reading!), or, they tell me what I am supposed to think about the book.
Well, if you’re anything like me, and by ‘like me’, I mean alive and breathing, you probably: don’t like feeling inadequate, don’t like people ruining stories, and hate people telling you what to think.
So, I’m not going to do that to you. I’m not going to tell you what I think. You probably don’t care what I think about the play anyway. And I mean that in the best possible way. Seriously, why would you? It isn’t my job to tell you what I think any more than it is yours to care. My job, the job of everyone involved in any play, is to get out of the way so you and the story can have some ‘quality time’ together. Like a play-date.
A few final things:
I hope the play transports you today. I hope that like the pages of a good book, the framework disappears and you are taken someplace. Where? Well, that is for you and the story to work out between you.
You will see 17 people on stage today. There are also over one hundred other students who are or have been directly involved in making Cuckoo’s Nest possible. It has been a privilege to be involved with each and every one, and I thank them for the gifts of their time, work, good humour, and commitment. If you enjoy yourself today it is because of them. If there is anything you don’t care for about the show, those mistakes are mine.
Thank you for coming to the Theatre today. From everyone involved in the production, we hope you will choose to join us again. Please, enjoy yourselves, and if you do, we hope you will tell your friends.
You may also view video clips from this production.