Hit the road Jack, this is a darker McMurphy

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest at Sheffield Lyceum from June 7 to June 23. Photo by Sam Taylor.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest at Sheffield Lyceum from June 7 to June 23. Photo by Sam Taylor.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is regarded as a cult-classic largely on the basis of the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson.

The production opening tonight at the Sheffield Crucible is the stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman which first ran on Broadway in the Sixties.

Either way it aims to cast fresh light on the story of Randle P McMurphy who dodges jail by opting to spend his sentence in a psychiatric ward and encourages his fellow inmates to rebel against the authoritarian regime led by Nurse Ratched.

Director Javaad Alipoor sees his challenge as meeting people’s expectations and embracing the cult nature of the film while ensuring it says something to younger and more diverse audiences as part of his brief as Sheffield Theatres associate director involved in the Arts Council’s Change Makers Programme.

“It’s a troublesome story with a whole lot more darkness and texture than the film has got,” he says. “It’s a beautiful film but it skates over some things we don’t feel we can.

“It’s also about the nature of the leader of men. They were living through a time of all those rock stars people looked up to in the Sixties and Seventies – a charismatic masculine leader. What kind of men can lead and dominate other men?”

The director researched previous productions of Cuckoo’s Nest and the actors who played McMurphy. “They all had nailed the charming trickster of men and I think that’s a kind of easy thing for them to do given the extrovert nature of actors generally. I felt no one had really found the edge in him or where he consistently bared his teeth,” he says.

The actor charged with presenting a different McMurphy is Joel Gillman. “It’s not the simple narrative of a charmer who comes in and tries to play everybody, what we’re doing here is different. He doesn’t have the overt lightness and charm Nicholson has. It is a massive re-interpretation of the character

“He’s extroverted, he brings in a completely different vibration and energy,” he continues. “He’s not a charming trickster, this is a man who was done for statutory rape of a minor, intimidating the courts, he’s not someone who’s come in just to make a bit of money. He’s sexualised and violent, I mean there’s a lot of darkness to him.”

For all that Gillman admits: “There’s a lot of myself in this character which is a pleasure because it speaks to me in a way nothing has ever done before.”

Thankfully not the violence. “The thing about authority and being an extrovert appeals to me as a provocateur. He’s someone who is always breaking the rules and that speaks to me. McMurphy is not a character who willingly steps in line and joins the herd. Where he leads them is the interesting thing.”

Gillman was previously at the Crucible in Restoration comedy The Way of the World. “I was in a wig and it was all very very different from this. I know this theatre but I also love this town. It’s where my parents met so it’s the reason I’m born. I’ve always had a soft spot for it. They were students and met at 19 and are still together in their seventies.

“The theatre itself is a special place and an incredible space to play. It’s a deep stage and a big space and yet the audience feel close to you. It makes you feel you can really make something special in that space.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a public dress rehearsal tonight, Thursday, June 7, and runs until June 23.