Blue/Orange

Joe Penhall
Duchess
(2001)

David Mamet's Oleanna showed how a decent, educated man could be brought to ruin as a result of what many would regard as relatively minor prejudices. In Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall attacks a similar subject slightly differently. In this case, the two major issues are race and madness. As with Oleanna, this play not only shows how an individual can be brought to his knees, it also raises interesting moral questions with regard to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and what punishment should be meted out to a person who oversteps the limit.

This play, which has just transferred to the Duchess Theatre from the Cottesloe, contains some of the finest acting currently on the London stage. Both Bill Nighy who plays the would-be Professor Smith and Chiwetel Ejiofor (the patient, Christopher) have already won awards for this production. The odd man out, Andrew Lincoln who plays the trainee psychiatrist, Bruce, also deserves to do so for his energetic and ultimately moving performance.

The play starts off at a rip-roaring pace as we see Christopher about to complete his 28 day Section 2 period in a mental institution. He is having a final interview with Bruce who has invited his mentor, Robert Smith, to sit in on the session.

Although he is edgy and jumpy, there is no apparent reason why Christopher should be in a mental institution. We see him responding to questions in a perfectly reasonable way and by the end of the first act, our sentiments are probably resting fully behind Dr Smith. He believes that Christopher should be released the next day in accordance with the notice under which he is held. It seems hard at this point to see why the rather over-confident Bruce believes that Christopher is not safe to become a recipient (victim) of Care in the Community.

During a rather slow second act, Dr Smith meets and interviews Christopher and it becomes apparent that he has a personal interest in ensuring that Christopher leaves hospital the next day.

Penhall together with his excellent director, Roger Michell then brings things together in the final act. It becomes apparent why the two doctors are acting as they are. They both have vested interests and the catalyst, Christopher, is used as a kind of pawn between them as they play a type of human chess for very high stakes.

We eventually get to understand both the motivations and feelings of all three of these well-drawn characters.

This is a very good play strongly enhanced by three superb actors. Bill Nighy as the shambling, stooped fifty-something doctor who still has something to prove not only to others but also to himself, is excellently supported by the two younger actors. Andrew Lincoln as Bruce combines the naive gaucheness of a young man who believes that he is poised to rule the world with later uncertainty and native wit as he fights for his life. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the manipulative patient, Christopher, is equally energetic and convincing both in his saneness and his madness.

The setting of this play in the round at the Duchess Theatre works exceptionally well. The characters follow each other around the stage and it is strongly recommended that visitors ask for tickets on the stage as this almost certainly affords the best view of proceedings. This may be easier said than done as this play sold out at the National Theatre throughout its run and deserves to do so again following its transfer.

Philip Fisher