Review: 'Blue/Orange'

By: Olivia Ash-Ranger

Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall’s 2000 play has been revived this summer at the Young Vic. Directed by Matthew Xia it stars Luke Norris as a young and naive doctor named Bruce and David Haig as his older, consultant counterpart called Robert. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya enacts their patient, Chris. The two white doctors are assessing whether or not to release Chris back into the community or to further diagnose him; offer him more treatment at the hospital. Originally set in the 1990s against the backdrop of New Labours ‘care in the community’ policies, the play still feels relevant and whereas before Robert Smith (Haig) was a “manifestation of New Labour’s propensity for ethical doublethink, now he feels like an embodiment of Cameron’s Conservatives – paying lip service to compassion for the vulnerable, while brazenly doing the opposite” (Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out). The hotly debated issues explored in the play take place ironically against the ‘so called’ calming blue of a NHS consulting room. Their commitment to help is very much only surface deep; appearing to operate smoothly and according to the rules from the outside - down to the colour of the walls. Supposedly if the bureaucratic procedures are followed then the goals of curing mental health issues will be achieved, however, in reality this is not the case and the play exposes the turmoil and disarray that characterises the NHS, at least in the case of dealing with mental health.

This is a complex, political play about the institutional problems that the NHS face in providing an acceptable level of care. Instead of the help a patient can receive being the focus of the discussion and disagreement between the two doctors, the patient is largely irrelevant, overshadowed by each doctor vying for his own belief to be heard. Bruce (Norris) wants to further section Chris and to diagnose him with schizophrenia so he can hopefully get the help he needs. However, this act would result in many other additional problems for Chris due to the negative and incorrect stigma associated with the illness. Robert (Haig) on the other hand explains away Chris’s strange behaviours, attributing them to his development of an ethnically and culturally determined behaviour theory. Robert hopes to study Chris in the outside world, which would (ideally) lead to his promotion. Within the play what they, as white doctors, see as ‘mad’ behaviour is envisioned as culturally normal and appropriate to Chris’s African background.

This is a major theme explored throughout the play: what is madness? And consequently, what is sanity? Who decides who is mad? All the characters are flawed and display psychotic behaviours: Bruce is too obsessed with labelling everything and is manic at times, and when his life starts to spiral out of control and he becomes increasingly frustrated with the system, his behaviour and body language become reminiscent of the behaviours Chris displayed previously. These were the indicators labelled as proof of his madness - begging the question of whether all Bruce’s/Chris’s? behaviours are considered mad because he has been labelled as such. Robert is narcissistic and displays a lack of empathy, he is motivated only by furthering his career and ego. Chris is (arguably) schizophrenic, he displays manic and eccentric tendencies; for instance he thinks that oranges are blue. None of the characters are able to effectively distinguish between metaphor and reality, with the doctors taking Chris’s ambiguous statements to mean whatever suits them and taking each other’s statements entirely out of context.

Perhaps they are all mad? Or all sane? Or is this distinction entirely subjective. The audience sitting around the stage all experience a different angle of the play and all the characters come from different backgrounds and have different motivations, meaning that the audience reacts in different ways to the same stimuli - they see the world differently. For some individuals oranges are orange, and for others, oranges are blue. Is that madness or people’s difference? The play therefore asks whose perception of reality is the right one and who has the right to determine when another person’s perception of the world is wrong and ought to be corrected. It explores the thin (blue/orange) line between madness and sanity, a line represented literally in the play’s title ‘Blue/Orange’ the forward slash being the ambiguous threshold.

ST.ART Magazine