Much has changed in the twenty years since Penhall’s ground-breaking Blue/Orange premiered, yet its interrogation of power and privilege in the UK is as relevant and urgent now as ever.
Why we need to elevate the discussion around Black male mental health!
Each November men around the world take part in Movember, a charity focused on bettering male health and reducing male suicide through spreading awareness of said issues. Statistics show that stereotypes and expectations due to ingrained stigmas surrounding manliness can make it harder for men to reach out for help, for example the term ‘man up’ might hinder a man speaking about his feelings.
Suicide is the largest cause of death in men under 50 in the UK. Rates of suicide are even higher among gay men, war veterans, those with low incomes, and men from BAME backgrounds.
Evidence shows that Black men are far more likely than others to be diagnosed with severe mental health problems and are also far more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. This is down to multiple factors including stigma, cultural barriers, and systematic discrimination, collectively labelled institutional racism.
Black people in majority Black countries (countries in Africa and the Caribbean) do not experience mental health issues to a greater extent than White British people within the UK. This means there’s something about being Black in the UK that leads to the massively higher rates of sectioning compared to White people.
Striking yet intimate, James Dacre’s reworking of Penhall’s Blue/Orange valiantly tackles countless uncomfortable truths. A collaboration between Penhall, Dacre, Michael Balogun and Giles Terera, its combination of concerns – psychiatry, the treatment of mental illness, and a health service at the point of crisis; masculinity and racism; and an overriding interest in the ways that power and language operate – along with its wit, humour, anger, and argumentation, are just some of the elements that continue to resonate with its audience, even twenty years later.
A play’s relevance to all times and ages is telling of its success, and the issues witnessed in the interaction between the three cast members of Blue/Orange still permeate society today. Set in a psychiatric hospital where status and reason shift constantly, the battle for the well-being of sectioned Christopher (Michael Balogun), who is coming to the end of his stay is at the centre of the plot. Balogun’s Christopher immediately captures the audience’s hearts and minds – pacing and angry one minute, terrified and child-like the next.
Dacre’s change in casting sees Giles Terera replace the senior (in age and position) psychiatrist character, Robert, who is traditionally played by a white actor, whilst white actor Ralph Davis is cast as the junior psychiatrist. This change in dynamic between the men still allows for the power battle between the doctors as they debate the next best steps for Christopher. As Christopher hysterically giggles one minute and explodes with rage the next, and Robert and Bruce teetering on the edge of collegiate respect and simmering resentment, you never know what Dacre has waiting for you round the corner.
As you watch the intimate yet stark stage, the complexities surrounding Christopher’s case start to show. The audience is tossed along waves of ethics and morality, which characters are right, and which are wrong, and who holds the best intentions. The set is not as clear of a boxing ring as the original production; however, it matches the same dimensions and contains similar battles within.
According to Christopher, oranges are blue and former Ugandan president Idi Amin is his father. These perceptions cause trainee psychiatrist Bruce to be adamant that Christopher is suffering with paranoid schizophrenia and must therefore be detained and given long term treatment. However, senior consultant Robert, a self-serving unpleasant character, is opposed to this idea and suggests that Christopher should go back to his community, that he is suffering the “black psychosis”. Robert believes that the black community is misdiagnosed by an institutionally racist system, leading to high rates of black patients being sectioned, a theory he is writing a book on in the hopes of gaining professorship.
The underfunding of the NHS leads Terera’s Robert to argue in favour of sending Christopher home, so as “to free up beds”, further propelled by his own theory of black psychosis and desire of more book data. He manipulates and coerces the impressionable Christopher, poisoning him against Bruce, for his own agenda. Ralph Davis’ Bruce fiercely argues that Christopher is “not a Guinea pig” and aims to safeguard him through scientific knowledge rather than subjective, however the fight with his arrogant superior ends with Bruce being on the verge of losing his job.
At the same time, Michael Balogun owns the stage as the tormented Christopher caught between conflicting beliefs and underlying desires. At the end of the tumultuous play, Christopher asks “whose thoughts am I thinking?”, emphasising the dangerous fragility of the human mind. Whilst we initially sympathise with both doctors’ intentions, the potent battle between the medical practitioners, their actions influenced by underlying selfish wants and beliefs, result in both being perceived as villains.
Tony Gayle and Valgeir Sigurdsson’s eerie soundscape creates a tense and ominous atmosphere, its menacing rises lead to a lonely silence, captivating audience attention for the duration, and consistently provoking conflicting debate. Every aspect of the set was grey, from lanyards to furniture, costumes to newspaper cuttings, all immaculately organised by set designer Simon Kenny. The only real colour to be seen on the sparse, neutral set shines from the bowl of orange oranges, which are not really oranges at all. They are figurative material; symbolic matter to be interpreted, transformed, distorted through language. Meaning gets projected onto them, significance is imposed, they become metaphors pulsing with ideas and teeming with contradictory meanings…ring any bells?
I observed that I was probably the youngest person in the audience which consisted mainly of white elderly people. Initially I thought of this as disadvantageous to the play and its message, however, as the profound performance unfolded and the audience remained mesmerised, I came to realise that Dacre/Penhall’s production was educating Bath’s ageing population. The performance’s emphasis on the complexity of mental health, as well as its illumination on the ethnocentrism and subconscious racism that pervades UK society, serves to reduce prejudice and discrimination within the community.
By Phoebe Fraser