Premiere of multi-award-winning Blue/Orange comes to theatres near you.
At Theatre Royal Bath until 13 November
At Oxford Playhouse from 16 – 20 November
At Royal & Derngate, Northampton from 23 November – 4 December
Twenty years after Joe Penhall’s ground-breaking Blue/Orange premiered, he collaborates with co-creators Giles Terera (winner of the 2018 Olivier Award for Hamilton), Michael Balogun (Death Of England, National Theatre) and Royal & Derngate’s Artistic Director James Dacre (2020 Olivier Award Nominee Our Lady Of Kibeho) on a brand new production shining new light upon this incendiary interrogation of power and privilege in modern Britain. The play won the Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards for Best New Play in 2001.
To win tickets, email ( marketing @alt- africa.com ) answering the following question:
How many years is it after Blue/Orange first premiered?
We have FOUR tickets up for grabs (Oxford or Northampton) and will give them in pairs dependent on the first correct answers. (Priority to female BIPOC) SheCAN
Deadline 16 November 2021 5pm.
In a London psychiatric hospital, a mysterious patient wants out. The problem is that, to him, oranges are bright blue, and Muhammed Ali is a whole lot more than just a boxer. As his doctor and senior consultant debate whether to section or release him, an extraordinary new claim causes them to become more and more divided in their diagnosis. Their power struggle escalates into a startling and provocative exploration of power and privilege, revealing uncomfortable truths about all three men.
Joe Penhall’s work is concerned with universal issues; mental illness, human isolation, work, and family structures observed through the minutiae of everyday life. His plays challenge notions of ‘the norm’ by extending the boundaries of the performance text into the realms of hyper-naturalism, experimenting with heightened dialogue, and thwarting perceived notions of gender.
This play presents a balanced yet contradictory representation of schizophrenia; an illness which, unlike a broken leg, is difficult to securely diagnose. Indeed, the piece explores the many ways in which all mental health diagnoses boil down to semantics: questions of language where one word placed wrongly can make all the difference. So, in a play about the ability of language to change people’s lives, the audience are asked to question their perceptions and are made to examine, forensically, the intellectual pathways through which we treat mental health and the damage that so often occurs in the name of liberal fundamentalism.
During the first week of rehearsals, Joe and the company sat down for a discussion on what the play’s themes mean to them today:
Joe Penhall: I wrote Blue/Orange to present an extraordinary argument that couldn’t be held in conversation.
Giles Terera: The beautiful thing about theatre is that we can explore these themes over a couple of hours rather than in the short form that debates are so often conducted today.
James Dacre: In an age in which too often we tell stories from just one perspective, or make arguments from just one side of a debate, one of the things I think that is so remarkable about all of Joe’s work is the way that he provides balance and perspective: two sides of a debate. He really celebrates the raw ability of theatre to create a forum in which ideas are dissected and discussed, not reduced to 60 characters in a tweet, but really explored with all of the nuance that the complex themes he tackles demand.
Ralph Davis: The way in which Blue/Orange captures three men’s warring ideologies over issues of power, race, identity politics and privilege is so contemporary. Fundamentally, it’s about three men desperately trying to get what they want. That speaks so powerfully at a time when everything’s so polarised, divided and divisive as it is at the moment. It can feel a lot of the time like there’s a war, even inside your own head, because what you see on the news, read on social media or experience in the workplace can be so full of contradictions. It can be really difficult to figure out who you are and what you believe in.
Joe: The play’s central themes are Identity, Power and Language. I was fascinated by the question of who has the right to say who you are and what you are? Who holds the power in a situation and to what extent are those with the best education – the best grasp of language – always able to talk their way out of trouble, to win arguments and ensure that they come out on top?
James: After eighteen months in which it’s been impossible to welcome audiences to live theatre, Blue/Orange makes a powerful case for how different points of view can be captured onstage, asking audiences to join in with those arguments and to relish being a part of the debate. It’s a play that asks so many timely questions: What does it mean to be British in the 21st century? What are our shared values? What do we care about as a nation, but also, what stands us apart?
Giles: I think Joe captures not only the complex workings of how we think and feel about these things, but manages to do it in a really truthfully funny way. I know a lot of people who in the last two years have been desperate to have these kinds of conversations. And it’s actually really tricky sometimes. I think this play, and hopefully our production, provides a space where we can have that kind of discourse.
Francesca Murray-Fuentes: With this production we’re not simply giving an old play a facelift. We’re rediscovering the heart of this story and placing it very securely into a world that we understand. So it may be set 20 years ago, but I believe it will resonate deeply with a 2021 audience. It has a really strong undercurrent of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society when they are placed in our care.
Michael Balogun: We’re beginning to realise that far more people suffer from mental health issues than we previously thought. And that a higher-than-normal percentage of Black people suffer with mental health issues. This play tries to understand why that is and explores how prejudice, racism and powerlessness affect people’s mental health.
Francesca: The ‘wear and tear’ of racism, in its many forms, places huge pressure on people’s mental wellbeing. For some young Black men, the residual and intergenerational effects of slavery and historical trauma are still keenly felt, and you add that to ongoing experiences of trauma and injustice, daily micro-aggressions…
Michael: If you’re a Black man in Britain you’re 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious mental health condition than if you’re White.
Giles: One of the themes in the play is about the treatment of mental health with regards to race. How a person is responded to and treated given their ethnic background; or not, whether that’s a factor and whether that should be a factor.
Francesca: Debate had been raging since the publication in 1982 of ‘Aliens and Alienists’ as to whether misdiagnosis was the reason behind why psychiatric admissions in the UK Black population were four or five times what was expected.
James: The popular understanding was that White, middle class British psychiatrists were simply misdiagnosing schizophrenia in people whose culture they did not understand. Early in the millennium, independent research assessments were carried out and purported to find misdiagnosis no more common in Black than White patients. The National Schizophrenia Fellowship reported that it did “not accept that any individual ethnic group has inherent susceptibility to severe mental illness than any other groups” Can we take this to be true? Even if it is, the questions still remain: “Why are admissions so high?” and “What can we do about it?”
Joe: I wrote Blue/Orange in my twenties after working as a cadet journalist, when there were several reported cases of people who were incarcerated in mental hospitals for saying things like, ‘Idi Amin’s secret police are following me around Peckham’ and being diagnosed as being delusional as a result. And what I discovered at the time and is widely acknowledged today is that there really were people being followed around Peckham by Idi Amin’s or Gaddafi’s or Mugabe’s secret police. Today I think that we’re much more open to the complexity of other people’s life stories. When the play first premiered the medical establishment was far more dominated by educated, privileged, White professionals. And those from outside of this background were too often considered outsiders. Now, people are a lot more aware of the complexities of the human experience and less judgemental of different human experiences but whilst we’ve made some progress in this respect, there’s far more still to be made.
Another story that influenced the play came about through a friend of mine in America who was schizophrenic. He fortunately recovered and used his experience of recuperation to begin supporting others who were recovering from bipolar and schizophrenic disorders. I joined him as a volunteer for a number of weeks and came across an African American man from Missouri who had a pervasive, enduring delusion that he was White and female. I was so moved by the complexity of this plight and the impossibility of explaining it to people. So, I wrote this play, in part, as an attempt to understand why this might be and to explore quite how complex the human condition can be.
Ralph: I think Giles playing Robert – a role previously always played by Caucasian actors – is really important to that sense of complexity. It deepens the conversation about what the play is about. And makes its discussions about race very rich and complex and interesting.
Michael: It also recognises how schizophrenia is misunderstood and heavily stigmatised in society. Through following Christopher’s journey audiences will hopefully understand that better. I hope audiences will leave the theatre discussing whose journey they aligned with the most: whose story they related to most.
Joe: Yes, I hope the play and its characters speak to people very directly. We’re trying to make the play more representational of what the NHS is like now and how the world has changed over the past twenty years. We’re attempting to do something very fresh that, hopefully, feels just as relevant to audiences today as it did when I first wrote it.
This production of Blue/Orange stars Giles Terera, Michael Balogun and Ralph Davis. Giles Terera said: “I vividly remember how fired up and moved I was watching Joe Penhall’s extraordinary play when it premiered. I believe the play can speak to us just as much, if not more so now as it did then. Getting to explore its themes of identity, mental health, race and a power struggle at the heart of the NHS alongside Michael Balogun is something I’m very excited about”
For more information and ticket info on the Bath production click here.
For more information and ticket info on the Oxford production click here.
For more information and ticket info on the Northampton production click here.