A classic American story comes to Sheffield

Javaad Alipoor is directing on the Crucible stage for the first time.
Javaad Alipoor is directing on the Crucible stage for the first time.
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For his directorial debut at the Crucible, Javaad Alipoor is taking on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nick Ahad reports.

The Crucible stage at Sheffield is a big, bold and epic space.

Those lucky enough to have ever stood on that famous stage will tell you that while being bold and epic, it is also, as odd as it sounds, tiny and intimate.

From the perspective of the seats it looks like it could cram in with ease the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt, while from the stage it feels like you could reach out and touch the back row.

Best described, perhaps then, as magical.

Over the years the magical stage has brought to life some extraordinary works of art and next month it sees a seriously special piece of work come to life when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest comes to the stage.

The play, written by Dale Wasserman based on the extraordinary Ken Kesey novel, is an almost unbelievable 55 years old this year.

Written by an outsider, a countercultural icon who took all manner of psychoactive drugs in the pursuit of his art, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is itself iconic and emblematic of a moment in American history that shaped the world as it is today.

It’s a big piece for Javaad Alipoor to take on, directing on the Crucible stage for the first time. It also, he says, makes perfect sense as the piece he should direct for this first time in such an iconic place.

Sheffield Theatres’ associate director, Alipoor has scored an impressive victory over the past 12 months with his one man show The Believers are But Brothers, which has received widespread critical acclaim.

One man show to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one big jump, but Alipoor appears undaunted.

“Two years ago the Arts Council ran a scheme called the change makers to find the people who are BME and/or disabled, who are under-represented in our theatres and help to find ways to make them the creative leaders of tomorrow,” he says.

The scheme was to allow Alipoor the space and time to be in the building and then to allow him to grow as an artist. “The point was to work on a project that I would find transformative and give me the experience to move to a next level as an artist.

“The idea was to also address the woeful lack of diversity in everything this theatre did, which was an issue in everything but casting.

“It was about me working to diversify the programming to make sure that the programme and visiting work actually reflected the city and the country we are in.

“I am the first person of colour to direct an in-house production at this theatre.”

So what was to be the transformative project that would move Alipoor into a different level? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“I came to the title in quite a traditional way,” he says.

“Myself and Robert (Hastie, artistic director) were looking at the season and the balance of the plays that we had and we were thinking about the plays that might fit. I knew we needed a big title that would punch out from the page and something that would be appealing to an audience. The nature of the stage means that you need to have big actors or big roles for actors to play and you are looking for a story that is epic.”

The answer, then, Ken Kesey’s era-defining story. The play, set in a mental institution where people are sent instead of prison, features a cast of compelling characters, perhaps none more so than Randle McMurphy.

“It’s an amazing piece of work with all this stuff that is mega on the button in terms of talking about now,” says Alipoor. “Robert kept asking me what was the play that I wanted to do that had something to say about now and I was trying to think of the right thing that felt like a Crucible play. I think it’s a play about masculinity and rebellion and it’s also about the limits of those things. It’s also a play that is really problematic and knotty and presents you with lots of thorny issues.”

Not least of the thorny is the lead character of McMurphy, played in the film of the story by Jack Nicholson and in the Crucible production by relative unknown Joel Gillman.

“He is a charismatic character, but he is also a dangerous man who is, after all, where he is because he was locked up for committing statutory rape,” says Alipoor.

“To some extent watching a play like this explores the ideas of our complicity as we watch on and observe the actions of this man.”

From page to stage and big screen

Written in 1962, Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a lightning rod of a novel.

Randle McMurphy fakes insanity to avoid jail and ends up under the charge of the sadistic Nurse Ratched.

The book, play and film, which came out in 1976 and starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, follow the same story as McMurphy attempts to instill in his fellow inmates a sense of anarchy and to thwart the authoritarian nurse who runs the institution with an iron fist.

Sheffield Crucible, June 8 to 23. Tickets 0114 2496000, www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk