Equus at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review *****

Equus

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 7th March 2019

Never seen Peter Shaffer’s Equus on stage before. Seen the film version which is a bit dry IMHO. So I was very happy to see that TRSE, in conjunction with the most excellent English Touring Theatre, were taking it on, joining the other productions in, what has turned into, an outstanding inaugural year for TRSE AD Nadia Fall. And we still have Pilot Theatre’s Noughts and Crosses, the Lenny Henry King Hedley II and the Noye’s Fludde Britten opera in collaboration with ENO, to come.

This production turned into the mid-point of the Tourist’s own little theatrical mini-season fortnight of complex and ambiguous theatrical transgression to include Ladykiller, Cyprus Avenue, Medea, Berberian Sound Studio, The Talented Mr Ripley, All About Eve and Richard III. No heroes here in the original sense of tragedy but all souls tormented by internal conflicts and “irrational” impulses. Obviously we have a fascination with behaviours that break norms but ambivalence can prove the most common flexible of structures on which to construct a drama. Moral certainty and clarity of motive rarely provides for good theatre. Conflict and uncertain resolution usually does.

Peter Shaffer, who died in 2016, authored many plays but his three most famous ones centre on the relationship between two very different characters, the clash of reason and instinct. Amadeus, as you no doubt know, is a fictionalised account of Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart whilst The Royal Hunt of the Sun brings together the King of the Incas, Atahuallpa, and Francisco Pizarro. (Black Comedy, which, along with RHOTS, I would dearly love to see, is a farce though it too starts with big idea, the reversal of lighting on stage). Equus, from 1973, tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses. It is based on a real life crime PS came across in Suffolk where a 17 year old blinded six horses.

In this ETT production Zubin Varla, (who I was much taken with in the Young Vic Measure for Measure opposite Romola Garai, as well as in the Gate’s The Island and in the Orange Tree’s Poison, amongst others), plays the child psychiatrist Martin Dysart who is inveighed by old friend and magistrate Heather Salomon (Ruth Lass) to take on the case of Alan Strang, (relative newcomer Ethan Kai of whom more later), the young man who has attacked the horses, (the case having already been outlined in Dysart’s opening monologue). Dysart himself is dissatisfied with his life and work and with treatments that seek to “normalise” his patients.

Strang initially refuses to engage with Dysart, singing ad jingles, (nostalgic for us oldies in the audience, bemusing for the school kids – yep Equus is an A level text ). Eventually though Dysart breaks through and, after interviewing Strang’s conflicted, repressed parents Frank (Robert Fitch) and Dora (Syreeta Kumar), and describing his own recurring dream involving ritual sacrifice, starts to piece together how Alan’s convoluted obsession with Christian iconography, sex and horses came into being. After that it starts to get properly disturbing as Alan manages to get a job at a stable run by Harry Dalton (Keith Gilmore) via his putative girlfriend Jill Mason, (Norah Lopez Holden in another uninhibited performance to match her Desdemona in the excellent STF Othello). You can guess the rest. Well you can try to at leat.

Mr Shaffer doesn’t make it easy for cast, director or audience. This play is packed with powerful scenes, multiple locations (hospital, beach, home, shop, stables, porn cinema), philosophical musings (from Dysart), intricate dialogue, tantalising themes and complex characters. Easy to see why it was made into a film. But play it is and it is the theatre where the story and its message will, in the right hands, be most successful. And unquestionably these are the right hands. Georgia Lowe’s plain white curtained box of a set means the scenes are played out with the minimum of props, basically a bed for the hospital showdowns. The spectacle, and trust me there is plenty even before the final, overwhelming “blinding” scene, comes from Jessica Hung Han Yun’s no holds barred lighting, (who also excelled at the Gate and in Yellow Earth’s Forgotten recently), and Giles Thomas’s similarly thrilling sound design.

That isn’t the half of it though. The real prize goes to movement director Shelley Maxwell and to Ira Mandela Siobhan’s and Keith Gilmore’s “horse” interpretations. All the cast apart from the two principals, double up as horses at various points, but it is these two who literally do the heavy lifting. Their strength when carrying “riders” and the way their bodies imitate the motion of the horses is astonishing. It also makes sense of the deep, emotional erotic attraction that Alan feels for the animals. Apparently the original stage directions call for the “horse” actors to wear masks and tracksuits. By rejecting this in favouring of human muscle and expression mimicking horse the power of Alan’s strange passion, a homo-erotic displacement, filtered through a hodge-podge of classical allusion, is amplified.

This is a play of powerful ideas, sexual attraction, religious and personal theology, institutional constraints, the dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian ways of living, which do not require literal manifestation. I can’t imagine a creative interpretation of the play that could top this. On top of this though is the smart move to play up Dysart’s own confusion and conflicts, his empty marriage, his rejection of consumerism, his questioning of the tenets of his profession, his attraction to Heather who can sense his unravelling. I am not sure the text implies that Dysart regrets “healing” Alan. Zubin Varla’s Martin certainly does. Never did ZV come anywhere close to the ponderous: read Dysart’s monologue’s on the page and see how tricky that must be.

Ned Bennett has already garnered awards for his work on An Octoroon, Pomona (both Orange Tree productions, yeh) and Yen. With this he has established himself as a master of visceral theatre. It is going to be fun seeing where he goes next. The trickier end of Shakespeare maybe one day? As it will be with Ethan Kai. The last major production of Equus saw Harry Potter in the form of Daniel Radcliffe flash his bum on stage but he was already famous. I see Mr Kai is best known to date for a role in Emmerdale. With all due respect to all you Emmerdale nuts Equus suggests he can do better.


Dealing With Clair at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Dealing With Clair

Orange Tree Theatre, 30th November 2019

The Orange Tree, along with the Royal Court, must presumably be one of Martin Crimp’s favourite theatres. Whilst he has primarily been engaged with writing libretti for George Benjamin’s excellent trio of operas in recent years, Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence, and will have his next play, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, premiering at the National next year (the Tourist has tickets, yea), many of his early plays started life at the Orange Tree, where he was championed by Sam Walters.

So it was nice to see the Orange Tree hosting English Touring Theatre’s revival of MC’s breakthrough play 30 years after its premiere in this very house. Surprisingly I managed to rope the SO and the Blonde Bombshells into the evening. Now, whilst I have an inordinate amount of time for the opera collaborations and his Chekhov translation, I am still making my mind up on Mr Crimp’s original drama. Mind you this was only the second such exposure, after The Treatment at the Almeida. Now there is no doubt there is something substantial there in his caustic stories which pick away at the underbelly of human behaviours, and in the painfully direct language he employs to tell them, but there is also a streak of irksome pretension which needles me.

Clair (Lizzy Watts) is an estate agent acting for the increasingly loathsome bourgeois yuppie couple Mike (Tom Mothersdale) and Liz (Hara Yannas). Anna (Roseanna Frascona) is their ill-used Italian au-pair. Art-dealer James (Michael Gould) is the increasingly threatening potential buyer. The cast is completed by Gabriel Akuwudike who variously plays Clair’s colleague, a builder and Anna’s boyfriend.

Now the play was originally written a couple of years after the still unsolved disappearance of the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh in Fulham (and who is commemorated in a stained glass window just down the road from the OT in East Sheen). Coincidentally the police were pursuing a new lead in the case as this revival opened. For those familiar with the circumstances of these tragic events it isn’t too difficult to guess where MC goes with the plot. But what he was really trying to expose was the venality of the time, the greed of the property owning classes, as well as playing with his usual themes of power and violence. It could have been written yesterday alas.

Fly Davies has delivered a cube on a raised platform in the centre of the OT stage masked by diaphanous gauze curtains and coldly lit by Joshua Carr. This only serves to heighten the voyeuristic quality that permeates MC’s play. We begin with Clair in her tiny, train-blighted flat on the phone to an unseen caller setting out, for want of a better term, the aggression that underpins the “art of the deal”. Every one of the cast, (even Gabriel Akuwudike at the end), is tasked with drawing out the worst traits in each of the protagonists, (and way more in the case of Michael Gould as James’s sadistic intent is revealed), whilst making sure we know they are still “one of us”. It is an unsettling watch in that respect and, for me, Lizzy Watts, given the truncated part she played, was particularly adept in capturing Clair’s ambitious pragmatism to get on and get the sale done even as her discomfort with James’s behaviour grew.

Clair’s flat also serves as the location for the disturbing, and slightly hyperbolic, ending but most of the action tales place in Mike and Liz’s house which they are looking to trade up from, (see how transactional language now permeates the everyday and which MC cleverly elides with the “business” of relationship). They start off blathering on about their “ethical” stance but their evasive attitudes, their treatment of Anna and the conversations they have behind the backs of Clair and, after his first viewing, James, reveal their true avaricious and condescending colours. Pretty soon they are making jokes about the “crumbling spine” of the buyer they happily gazump and gleefully ramping up the price they will settle for. Hara Yannas and, especially, Tom Mothersdale have plenty of opportunity to reveal the odiousness of the couple which, in terms of their performances, they relish.

Michael Gould as James runs the gamut from curt and business-like, through slightly odd, to Pinteresque menacing, then into creepy, sinister and finally full blown abusive psycho. I do hope in real life he is a kindly uncle type for here, in the scenes with Clair especially, he genuinely made me fell queasy, which is ironic in some ways, given that in a particularly memorable scene, Mike is the one who is actually sick in the play.

So some very fine performances, dextrously directed by ETT director Richard Twyman, of an intelligent play, built out of considered language and symbols, with streaks of dark humour, which deals with the dark side of human nature. So what’s not to like Tourist? Well I think it might just be the cumulative effect of the slightly off-kilter naturalism of the action and dialogue. It feels to me, with the odd stresses and unbroken pessimism, to be about 5% away from where it should be. I appreciate that is a daft thing to say, and I wish to be clear that it is not the subject or the form that I mildly object to, just the tone which I found a little wearing over the 100 minutes. And, whilst I am sure that MC is, like Pinter, merely highlighting the iniquity of misogynistic threat through his characters, thereby to condemn it, it would be reassuring if he this was occasionally made a little more explicit.

Mind you, like all good theatre, the bloody thing has got stuck in my head ever since, and, even with the misgivings, I am looking forward to his new play, so clearly MC is doing something right even as I think he might not be. The SO, hasn’t volunteered much of an opinion on DWC, not one to waste her words, but is happy enough to join me in the next leg of the Crimp journey.

The Weir at Richmond Theatre review ****

Marsden_Weir,_Goulburn

The Weir

Richmond Theatre, 2nd March 2018

I am jealous of anyone who has never seen Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir. They have something special to look forward to. I last saw it at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh at the beginning of 2016 in a fine production directed by Amanda Gaughan with a wonderful cast of Brian Gleeson, Frank McCusker, Lucianne McEvoy, Gary Lydon and Darragh Kelly. You might think that, given its structure, a series of memorable disclosures over one evening in a pub in Ireland, this was a play which might not warrant repeated viewing. You’d be wrong. I haven’t yet seen any of Conor McPherson’s other plays, bar one, which I hope to correct, but I can guess why this remains the favourite and most oft-performed.

Now Mr McPherson is currently packing them in, and getting award nominations, with Girl From the North Country at the Noel Coward Theatre having transferred from the Old Vic. (Girl From the North Country review ****). He is fortunate in his choice of musical collaborator, a certain Mr B Dylan, and his cast, notably Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds and Arinze Kene, but these are his stories, his words and his direction.

For telling stories is what he is good at. Mind you he is in pretty good company. What is it that makes Ireland, per capita, the most talented country in the world when in comes to the dramatic word. This is a wild, unproven assertion, but you take my point. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Synge, Shaw, Wilde, Boucicault, Yeats (he founded the Abbey), Beckett, Behan, Friel, O’Casey, Walsh, Carr, McDonagh (alright he’s not really Irish). And that’s just the ones whose work I have seen. There are tons more.

Maybe it’s the education system, (which champions the word over other art forms), the civil structure, the pub culture, the craic. (I really do not mean to offend with gratuitous paddywhackery here). Maybe its the Catholic Church which tells a lot of lurid stories. Maybe its the long, and deeply held, oral tradition. Maybe it simply reflects past success. Irish writing outside the dramatic form also excels in the short story and the episodic. Maybe its the breadth of the diaspora. If you go round the world you have a lot of stories to tell. But none of this is particular or peculiar to Ireland and, anyway, such generalisations are surely slightly patronising.

Whatever the reason we should all be grateful and The Weir reminds us why. It’s a cold, windy night. Garage owner Jack, (veteran Sean Murray who I think has the juiciest part), comes in to the village pub, (perfectly realised in Madeleine Girling’s set), and pours himself a drink. From a bottle after tetchily discovering the Guinness tap is off. Eventually¬†Brendan, (here charmingly played by Sam O’Mahony), comes from the house behind and officially opens his bar. They chat about their day. They are joined by mild odd-job man Jim (John O’Dowd) and they discuss the arrival of Valerie in the village. Finally local boy made good businessman Finbar (Louis Dempsey) arrives with Valerie herself (Natalie Radmall-Quirke, who is the only member of the cast I had seen before, in Cheek By Jowl Winter’s Tale). Valerie is renting a house and Finbar is showing her around, as she moves from Dublin. Jack and Finbar start verbally sparring with each other, Jack plainly jealous of Finbar’s success and Finbar overly cocky. This is in part a display to impress Valerie. We know¬†these people even before the four mysterious supernatural stories emerge in succession. After the stories, we know them even better.

I’ll stop there in case you haven’t seen the play. Suffice to say all human, and beyond, life is there in the words of the five characters over 100 minutes or so. It is rooted in rural, Irish life, and there is no action to speak of, but at this performance, like I suspect all other performances, the audience is transfixed, so clearly Mr McPherson has tapped into universal truths. Myth is a powerful force in Ireland, and Mr McPherson is not the first of his countrymen to incorporate it into his plays, with Brian Friel an arch exponent for example. Others have also borrowed from the tradition: most recently Jez Butterworth in The Ferryman. Yet The Weir has a kind of special power because the stories are simultaneously extraordinary and day-to-day.

Moreover it isn’t just the monologues that suck you in. The dialogue is also compelling. These are lives lived, funny, sad, tender, sometimes desperate, filled with memory. Drink is an equivocal lubricant, opening the characters up and exaggerating emotions. I haven’t had a drink in years (don’t ask) but The Weir reminds me what I am missing. For despite the intimation of lives that have been blighted by sorrow or frustration these people seem to have had an enjoyable, fruitful evening in each other’s company. Think about it. One way or another your best memories will probably involve having a laugh or a heart to heart with friends. That’s life.

A superb play very well realised by the cast and director Adele Thomas. There were one or two moments where the transitions where a little ticklish, and the fading of the lights into the stories was a bit obvious, but it doesn’t really matter. When a play is this good, and the cast this attuned, then it can only be a success. This English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester co-production is nearly done I am afraid, just a couple more nights in Cambridge, but I see ETT’s next production is A Streetcar Named Desire. If it is coming anywhere near you I would seek it out based on the handful of ETT productions I have seen to date.