Performed by Tinashe Mangwana, Jarryd Dobson and Andrew Lewis
20 August – 3 September, 2001
Andrew Lewis and Tinashe Mangwana (pic: Stewart Thorpe)
What dates a play?
Not for the first time, I wonder whether the cataclysm of 2001 and the two decades since that are, undoubtedly, its direct aftermath, have become a prism through which we look at many things, including the theatre.
Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall’s Olivier Award-winning drama about systemic racism, mental illness, the individuals who treat it and the economy in which they operate is a case in point.
First staged in April 2000, it has many of the hallmarks of the topical, realist, character-driven theatre of that time. It’s loquacious, tendentious and combative. It’s three characters: the ambitious, passionate young registrar Bruce (Jarryd Dobson) and the vain, strategic specialist Robert (Andrew Lewis) parry and thrust while their patient, Christopher (Tinashe Mangwana) bounces around the walls of their dialectic.
Blue/Orange works around valid questions about unconscious cultural and racial bias, the logistical challenges facing health services like Britain’s NHS (the play is set in it’s mental health system), hierarchical structures and the personal responsibility of specialists dealing with the vulnerable and damaged, the minority person and the unentitled.
No-one can doubt the currency of these questions – a quick scan of the WA Coroner’s Court list this week provides a particularly tragic example of them.
But, for all that, is Blood/Orange dated? Are we too skittish now, do we take too much in with us to our seats, does our own uncertainty and anger override the uncertainty and anger of a play and its characters? Do we want to participate in a conversation any more, or do we just want our opinions reflected in what we see and hear.
Or are we so careful in our own thoughts and expressions to honestly examine to the things we have become careful about?
Two words (according to the Urban Dictionary, words used by racist old white Southerners to refer to any black person who looks them in the eye) that encapsulate the thesis of Blue/Orange, and its problem.
First used, cunningly, by Christopher to describe how the world, and the two doctors, view him, then weaponised by both Bruce and Robert, they are a fulcrum on which the power struggles of the play are balanced.
Each of the doctors is convinced in their worldview, each hitches their personal ambitions to it. But perhaps it’s only Christopher who sees his world as it is, and who clearly knows what is wrong with it, and him.
Christopher is the play’s hero, and it’s victim
Even when the play feels out of its time, there’s no doubting the quality of the production. Stuart Halusz manages the action on a claustrophobic stage in the round, defined as much by Noah Ivulich tense, often subliminal compositions and Garry Ferguson’s interrogatory lighting as the space itself.
Dobson and Lewis are excellently cast, unmasking the self-interest behind the younger man’s idealism and his senior’s pragmatism.
But it’s all about Mangwana’s Christopher. He’s a great ball of fire, torching the stage with physical and expressive humour, yet capable of great subtlety of mein and inflection.
As he showed in his fetching, idiosyncratic Valere in WAAPA’s Tartuffe earlier this year (Mangwana was released from his studies there for his role in Blue/Orange) he’s a compelling, singular performer who will be worth keeping a close eye on in future.
His performance is a highlight of a quality production of a play with plenty to say, even if the way we expect things to be said may have changed.
* I’m reminded that my daughter was castigated by her professor at the liberal arts college she attended in the US for quoting the word verbatim from Randy Newman’s Rednecks – a brilliant, excoriating attack on racism and racists from the 1970s – in her presentation. Perhaps she, and this production, needed to be more “careful”.