Young Vic Theatre, London (****)
Sixteen years on from its premiere, Joe Penhall’s explosive exposé about race and mental health has, sadly, lost none of its relevance. People from a black African or Caribbean background are still disproportionately likely to be `sectioned’ – detained without their permission. Penhall probes this situation with brilliant dramatic skill and humour zoning in not so much on his protagonist, Christopher, showing all the signs of acute, possibly schizoid disturbance but rather those treating him.
In this portrait of `the politics of the madhouse’, Robert, the Consultant Psychiatrist is cast as a doctor who spouts trendy ethno-sensitive jargon but, like a latter-day Dr Strangelove, is mad, bad and very dangerous to know.
As in Bill Dudley’s original in-the-round staging in the much missed National’s Cottesloe theatre, Jeremy Herbert’s design adds intensity giving us a ringside view (this time above an `immersive’ walkway as if leading through a therapy wing).
Perched above, it becomes a gladiatorial contest in David Haig’s mesmerising performance, encircling his younger colleague, Bruce, unfortunate enough to get in his way on a thesis Robert is preparing on entho-centric factors in schizophrenia.
Like a cobra squeezing its prey, Robert wears down his young associate’s well meaning arguments for detaining Christopher longer than the 28 days of his original sectioning. Written at a time when it was fashionable – and still is – release the mentally ill `into the community’, if there is a weakness to Penhall’s set-up it is that Christopher’s side has not been heard sufficiently; as in real life, his voice is all but silenced.
Less subtle than in its original staging (by Roger Michell), or indeed Philip Osment’s recent excellent Hearing Things (at the Albany Deptford), Matthew Xia’s revival nonetheless carries a terrific punch in raising issues of dominance and political manoeuvring, seen as manifestly more important than actually helping the patient.
As the unstable Christopher, declaring Idi Amin as his father Daniel Kaluuya prowls uncomfortably, forced to the side-lines as the two white doctors `talk amongst themselves’ .
Essentially an attack on careerism and medical hierarchies, Blue/Orange will surely resonate for a whole new generation. After all, mental health now affects one in four of us.