Finally Going Cuckoo

Luke Reynolds and Kath Hotschilt face off as RP McMurphy and Nurse Ratched in Townsville Little Theatre's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' IMAGE: Kieran Thomas

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Many will be familiar with the novel or film. First published in 1962, the novel by Ken Kesey continues to divide readers. While the years have seen numerous attempts to ban the book from school curricula – accusing it of being pornographic, glorifying criminal activity and corrupting juveniles – it maintains a place on many must-read lists including those by TIME Magazine and the BBC. The 1975 film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson, has enjoyed an even better reception. It was only the second film to be awarded all five major Academy Awards* and was deemed ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically significant’ when the US Library of Congress preserved it in the National Film Registry in 1993.

But did you know there’s also a play? Like the novel and film, the play follows Randle P McMurphy as he attempts to escape the drudgery of a work farm sentence by pretending to be insane. However, life in an institution is not quite as cushy as McMurphy had anticipated and he finds himself going to battle with the domineering Nurse Ratched, while trying to bolster a ward full of brow-beaten patients.

It’s a play that Townsville Little Theatre’s (TLT) Alan Cooke and Donna Clayton-Smith have been waiting to Direct for a long time.

“The appeal goes right back to the novel and film, which I’ve always found really intriguing,” said Alan. “With the novel, I’ve worked with senior school students to very good effect, but I had no idea a play script existed until about four or five years ago.”

“We told him,” said Donna, referring to herself and her husband Stephen Smith, who will play the role of Cheswick in the upcoming production.

“Stephen was in the play in 1979 with The Old Nick Theatre Company in Hobart and so we’ve always had a great big photo album that dates to Stephen’s last year at University with photos of the play.”

Stephen Smith (second from right) in the Old Nick Theatre Company’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ IMAGE: Supplied

While Alan, Donna and Stephen quickly agreed that Townsville Little Theatre should perform One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it was a matter of timing and talent that has taken it half a decade to happen.

“Much of the delay was waiting until it was suitable to fit into the program, and the availability of such a strong male cast,” Alan said. “The talent in this town is just growing and growing and we finally got to a point where I could see that there were enough men in town who would audition, and we would get a strong cast out of it.”

The cast of 17 (13 of them men) is large by TLT’s standards and combines some well-seasoned board-treaders, including Luke Reynolds and Kath Hotschilt as the iconic McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, with a few newcomers.

“It’s worth mentioning the stunning calibre of the cast,” Alan said. “From the very first reading it was just working, which is pretty rare. I mean, first readings are usually OK, but that night Donna and I both left feeling absolutely…”
“Confident and buoyed up,” Donna interjects.
“And we haven’t left rehearsal any other way yet.”

So what is it about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that inspired such patience and perseverance in Alan and Donna?

“It’s about power,” Donna said. “A good story has a good villain.”
“And power struggles are always a very good ruse for something dramatic,” Alan adds. “It’s a mixture of dark and light – there is the comedic there despite the fact that there is awful, awful ugliness running through the whole thing.”
“It’s very unusual to have a strong female character who has normal, socially acceptable motivation and yet is such an easy person for the audience to despise. To have a character like that, a female character, is really unusual, particularly in something written so long ago.”
“Hence the Academy Award for the film.”

But those who are familiar with the novel or film: be warned. The play is not a cut-and-copy job.

“That’s the key thing I like about it,” Alan said. “The film. The novel. The play. They’re all very different. Their focal points are different, their modus operandi are different. And it really shows. It’s three genre with the one story. It’s beautiful.”

Townsville Little Theatre will stage One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at PIMPAC from 11-14 July. For tickets, click here.

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