Thursday, June 15, 2006

Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange

“What colour is an orange?” turns out to be a key question in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which opens next week at the Peacock. You think you know the answer, you see, but maybe you don’t. And if you get the answer “wrong” people might start to call you, if not crazy, at least schizophrenic.

In Penhall’s play, a senior psychiatrist struggles with his young registrar for control of a black man who has been sectioned after doing “something funny” with an orange.

The elder doctor has found an unexpectedly happy accommodation between his brand of psychiatry – influenced by the frequently-debunked sixties theorist, RD Laing – and a Thatcherite desire to be rid of costly patients back into “the community”.

“I was interested in the idea that people who were quite radical in the 1960 are now very senior and thoroughly establishment figures,” says Penhall. “But maybe they still believe in approaches that they championed back then.”

The clever switch in Penhall’s play is that the notion that black people may be regularly mishandled and misdiagnosed is the psychiatric establishment’s own view of itself. The young maverick doctor in the play, on the other hand, believes in drugs and confinement as the key to treatment.

“When the play was on at the National [theatre] – where the audience is a subscription one and, let’s face it, quite elderly, I got some extraordinary reactions at the first night reception. People were coming up to me asking me if I thought black people suffered more from schizophrenia because they smoked so much marijuana. Honestly, somebody came up to me and started telling me there were some Chinese people at their golf club who were causing a lot of trouble and what did I think they should do about it…”

And you thought The Gate’s first night audience was herd of moribund dinosaurs!

Talk to any playwright and sooner or later the conversation will come around to writing for the cinema. As it happens, Penhall has been dabbling a bit too, adapting Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, and even directing his own short film, The Undertaker (which starred Rhys Ifans) “to earn my stripes” he says. A feature film with Penhall as director is now in the pipes.

But like any playwright who is used to the relative autonomy of the theatre, he finds the process of writing for the big screen somewhat bewildering, if not a tad surreal.

“When you’ve written a screenplay and you hand it over to someone to direct, it’s like you give somebody your Labrador to take for a walk, and when it comes back it’s a poodle.”

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