Stephen Madsen on the intricacies of Sport for Jove’s upcoming production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and its boisterous, ribald and ultimately devastating story of a psychiatric clinic and its inhabitants has long been considered amongst the great pieces of literature, theatre and film.

This August Sport for Jove are bringing Cuckoo’s to the stage once more. We caught up with Stephen Madsen (who will play Ruckly, an inhabitant of the clinic) to discuss the film, this adaption, and his recent photoshoot inspired by the saddening historical truths of the story.

The play opened in 1963 (with Gene Wilder!) to critical success, and the film in 1975 is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. What do you think is the power of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

It’s a story about the compulsion of dominant cultural constructs to suppress the individual. The sanity and self-worth of the characters is measured by their adherence to the rules of a manufactured community that celebrates a pretence of democracy whilst disempowering the voices of minorities. Those themes resonate universally; they were pertinent when Ken Kesey wrote the novel in 1962 and they’re terrifyingly relevant today.

The film made a taboo subject of the time accessible for a mainstream audience. Mental health and state institutions weren’t talked about or understood. Its cultural legacy is undoubtable; Nurse Ratched has become an iconic villain of American cinema. Kesey and Milos Forman, the director of the film, are also responsible for shaping a public perception of electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies that continues to this day.

I’d imagine you’ve definitely seen the film, being a self-confessed film buff! Are the play and film quite similar?

Of course! I watched the film as a kid and revisited it recently as part of my preparation. Both the film and the play are adaptations of the novel so their core narrative is shared. The play predates the film and stays closer to the book (which is told from Chief Bromden’s perspective). You have a clearer sense of the Chief’s experience in the play. Some of the characters have been combined or omitted in the stage version because of casting practicalities. Ruckly, my role, is an amalgamation of various chronic patients from the novel. All of the action of the play is confined to the ward, unlike the film, so you get a very strong sense of the claustrophobia and encapsulation of that environment.

It’s a text that deals with some very serious issues, but is also described as “funny, touching, and exciting”. How does that all get balanced out on stage?

The characters are so richly drawn. They’re amplified versions of people we all know and their interactions are entertaining and emotional. All great theatre has a balance of drama and comedy in order to accurately reflect life. We’re in rehearsals at the moment and our director, Kim Hardwick, is putting a lot of work into mapping out each moment so that we’re all on the same page in terms of the story we’re telling, the pacing and the emotional temperature at any given point.

You recently did a photoshoot inspired by the show, which are of course the images we see here. What were you and the photographer trying to convey in the shoot?

I’ve spent a lot of time researching hydrotherapy in mental institutions. Patients were restrained in tubs that were covered in fabric with a hole for their heads to poke out and hot or cold water would be used to treat hyperactive or lethargic patients respectively. People were strapped in these baths for hours or even days. I read about patients being mummified in towels doused in ice-cold water or strapped up as if they were being crucified and blasted with fire hoses. Many of these appalling conditions are well documented in black and white photos from the time which we referenced when were shooting.

This will actually be the first play that I have seen you in! Do you approach it differently to how you would your musical roles?

Great! I’ve had the privilege of playing great dramatic roles in musicals so my approach has been the same (minus learning the music). This has been a research-heavy job because of the period, the setting and the medical issues involved. Ruckly has been through years of shock treatment and had a botched lobotomy so the physical work has vastly outweighed the text work for me. His verbal capabilities are limited which is both freeing and daunting as the patients are on stage for almost the entire play. It’s a pleasure to work on a literary adaptation like this because the book is a goldmine of information. I’ve also got a longer rehearsal period on this job than some of my recent work so there’s been more time to make discoveries.

And finally, you’ve also recently been cast in the new musical Muriel’s Wedding, which will premiere at the end of this year! How excited are you about this on a scale of terrible to ten?!

12/10. I’m so excited to be involved in the creation of a new Australian work and Muriel’s Wedding has a truly outrageous line-up of creatives that I’m still pinching myself about working with. Such stuff as dreams are made on! I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

Stephen and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest will fly into the Reginald Theatre at Sydney’s Seymour Centre from the 3rd – 19th August. For more information and to book visit sportforjove.com.au

Photography by (c) Fred LeMarche