‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ still flies in the face of oppression

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Among the astonishing outburst of new American cinema in the 1970s, Milos Forman’s multi-Oscar-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” offered most Japanese moviegoers their first encounter with the peculiarly piercing eyes of Jack Nicholson, who played its central character, Randle P. McMurphy.

Now, almost 40 years on, theatergoers here can savor this masterpiece anew in a splendid stage production by the director/playwright/actor Masahiko Kawahara, with 31-year-old screen star Shun Oguri bringing to Nicholson’s role a charismatic take on troublemaking all his own— together with a trendy cap in place of a beanie.

Back in 1962, Ken Kesey’s anti-establishment novel of the same name had been — along with the likes of Joseph Heller’s antiwar epic “Catch-22″ (1961) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s taboo-busting “Last Exit to Brooklyn” (1964) — iconic to the growing 1960s counterculture that spanned the Atlantic, and to this day it remains one of the most-banned books ever in the United States.

Within a year, however, it had been adapted for Broadway by Dale Wasserman, with Kirk Douglas in the lead role. Though it only ran for two months, the Hollywood star seemingly passed on his liking for the work to his son, Michael Douglas, who produced that historic 1975 movie.

Set in a psychiatric hospital in the U.S. state of Oregon, the story by Kesey (1935-2001) — who had worked as an orderly in a similar institution — tells how spunky repeat offender McMurphy feigned mental problems in prison so he could serve his sentence there instead of doing hard labor.

On the locked ward to which he is assigned, his fellow inmates include an imposing Native American named Chief Bromden (Takaya Yamauchi in the current stage production), an educated paranoiac named Dale Harding (Shinji Takeda), Billy Bibbit (Shunsuke Daitoh), a childlike stutterer with a mother complex, and a delusion nice guy named Martini (Tenkyu Fukuda).

Lording it over them all, is passive-aggressive Chief Nurse Mildred Ratched (Misuzu Kanno) who controls her charges through coercion and deceitful manipulation — in the process making herself the focus of all their thinking, and quashing any hopes they may have had of returning to life beyond those walls.

But worldly wise McMurphy is not one to be lorded over, and as he fans rebellion on the ward Ratched soon comes to hate him. Then, after one of the escapades he engineers leads to her utter humiliation, she takes action which leads to a terrible denouement.

In the program for his Tokyo production of this seemingly ageless drama, Kawahara, 45, explains: “This is the third ‘great movie’ I have adapted (following ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in 2011 and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ last year), but this time there was already a play text (as it was staged before it became a movie).

“So in directing this play, I have tried to faithfully tackle the text without adding many dramatic tricks, such as the showiness I brought to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with live punk music, kitschy costumes and massive sets.”

Indeed, Kawahara’s stage is as bleakly intimidating as the picture Kesey painted in words of a concrete-walled ward housing just a few simple tables and chairs. But closer perusal also reveals a nurse center looming over everything like some kind of sci-fi control room, and a lobotomized inmate (Metal Yoshida) hanging cuffed on a wall.

Despite that great set, though, Kawahara pointed out how, unlike when making a film, “All the characters here are on view all the time. So I try to carefully describe each character’s motivations and create an original masterpiece of our own.”

And as the director implied, teamwork is key. Not only does Oguri deliver a brilliant and complex performance, but also the entire cast — notably Kanno’s portrayal of sinister and hypocritical Nurse Ratched, Takeda with his minute characterization of Harding, Fukuda’s comically mad Martini and Yamauchi, with the mighty presence he brings to the pivotal role of Chief Bromden — all excel, richly deserving the audience’s thunderous applause through numerous curtain calls.

Interestingly, although Oguri is still best known for his looks and his many on-screen roles, he has also racked up some notable stage triumphs, including in two British productions by Yukio Ninagawa — first in the Bard’s “Titus Andronicus” staged in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2006, when none other than The Guardian’s critic Michael Billington declared, “The most human performance comes from Shun Oguri, who turns the villainous Aaron into a snickering thug delighting in pure evil” — then in Hisashi Inoue’s “Musashi” at the Barbican in London in 2010, when his portrayal of the feared swordsman Kojiro Sasaki again elicited wide acclaim.

As if to gild the lily of Kesey’s masterpiece returning full of freshness and relevance in 2014, a recent BBC Panorama program titled “Bedlam Behind Bars” reported on the huge number of mentally ill Americans who are now imprisoned without proper medical treatment, often chained to their beds and abused by guards, because so many of the hospitals where they ought to be cared for have been closed to cut costs.

So, just as Kesey talked about powerless patients being derided, given electric-shock treatment and even lobotomized by their hospital keepers, that BBC investigation showed how their successors are now imprisoned and even killed on behalf of those in power who hold the purse-strings while denying them even their human dignity.

Whether we have progressed or not is just another of the questions so powerfully posed by this play.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” runs till Aug. 3 at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre outside JR Ikebukuro Station. For details, call Horipro at 03-3490-4949 or visit hpot.jp/stage/cuckoo or www.geigeki.jp.