What constitutes normality is a humanities discussion so hackneyed it is open to scorn and derision. It is an area of intellectual parlour debate graduate students cynically sneer at, along with any other serious existential considerations, and one young professionals don’t even bother to entertain.
But what is generally perceived to be so callow about considering society’s unspoken agreement on which behaviour is considered sane, and which not? Even the young psychiatry registrar in writer Joe Penhall’s devastatingly layered play Blue/Orange cannot contain his disdain for his distinguished consultant’s consideration of the subjectivity of normalcy.
Perhaps because at some stage we realise that to accept the unstated codes of normal behaviour ensures we are part of the normative circle.
Anyway, questions such as: who defines what is normal, and what if the reality the majority agree on is false, lead to paralysis. For majority consensus does not make something true. If so, we’d still believe the Earth is flat and that capitalism is a benign economic system.
But as derided as the existentialists may be in this age of irony, they took their thinking seriously and posed questions which have in some instances become cliched only because we are as yet unable to answer them. But the lack of answers does not mean we should not seriously consider the questions, for doing so can at the very least assist in developing more nuanced thinking, greater empathy.
These are, of course, questions which arise in Blue/Orange, particularly through the discussions which rise from amiability through the levels to vicious argument and betrayal between young psych registrar Bruce, played by Nicholas Pauling, and Robert, the consultant played by Andrew Buckland. The subject of their argument, ostensibly, is the patient Christopher, acted by Marty Kintu.
The issues of normalcy, insanity, and the diagnosis determining on which side of the line Christopher falls are not explicit – London-based Penhall is no naïve playwright – they exist within a larger struggle. One that revolves around power. For it is the powerful who determine the diagnosis of sanity. Overtly in this case, power is personified in the senior consultant who covertly represents the power of the majority, the power of the wealthy, and the power of the state.
On the face of it, Robert has the power of institution and Bruce has the power of truth. But no-one gets out of this with a clear conscience, not even poor, bereft, black Christopher, who is the one person without power, the one being judged – sorry, diagnosed. The health of his mind may be in question but so are his ethics, his loyalty swaying to wherever the most comfort lies. His faults are a lot more forgivable though, a small pile of children’s blocks compared to the shipping container-sized ego-driven motives and manipulations that spew out of Robert and Bruce’s mouths. Their hidden agendas result in the very person who should be the center of their attention being most ignored, becoming merely a pawn.
Yet he is central to himself. This, too, is the human condition. And how do we measure his behaviour when we have no experience of the stimuli that informs it?
Is a black man living in a council flat in Sheperd’s Bush not justified in thinking he is being targeted by the police? How can a privileged white doctor who has only experienced the police as benign be qualified to determine whether the patient suffers paranoia or harbours a realistic fear? Is he not justified in feeling like a target? Perhaps it is not drugs he needs, but a just society. In that respect, this play translates from the British to the South African situation, there is a universality to these questions. For it is the same question as whether it is not rational for a child growing up in an informal settlement to develop a phobia of fire.
It is the same lack of willingness to imagine how a different reality may inform a person’s decisions that informs the continuing racism and xenophobia all too apparent in this country. We’re much to quick to state “oh, I wasn’t being racist”, when we should be asking: “what is it that offended you, and how?”
And how does it feel to have your perceptions, your very sanity, questioned merely for constructing a reality that makes sense of a senseless world? In this respect Kintu is magnificent. He shows us what it feels like. What’s more, we recognise it immediately, which is possibly the most terrifying thing about this play.
He is full of false bravado, insecure aggression, anxiety manifest as hyperactivity, of confusion and uncertainty, self doubt and constructed confidence, of enthusiasm that is childlike and sensitive to hurt of a kind that should not exist. He has the least to say, yet he dominates this play, which is something I don’t say lightly considering he’s playing adjacent to Buckland. And Buckland is absolutely superb as the egocentric, supercilious consultant. It is fantastic to see him playing a dialogue-driven role such as this. It is a rare treat. And he’s so fucking good at it. All that physical theatre training subdued into the most nuanced body language, so that combined with a razor sharp text, his acting is as precise as the neurosurgeon’s scalpel with the force of a heavyweight champ’s upper cut.
It is only from being placed in comparison that Pauling seems a bit blunted where in other company his acting would be of the top drawer, particularly with text such as Penhall’s. Not that it wasn’t here, he simply has not had the years to practice, the physical discipline that characterises Buckland’s career. To have to match him as protagonist on stage is a bar Pauling pulls himself up to with solid strength, although not much grace.
That Kintu should, despite the fact he has the least dialogue and stage time, be so prominent is partly due to the animation he is allowed in his role, and inspired direction by Clare Stopford. It is after all Christopher who is the most important character here. The psychiatrists may forget that fact but Stopford ensures we don’t, casting harsher light on the inanity of their despicable ego tussle upon a clinical set designed by Patrick Curtis which highlights the sterility of their compassion.
— Steve Kretzmann
Blue/Orange is on at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio until 14 March.