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.


Cock at the Minerva Theatre review ****

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Cock

Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 10th October 2018

Another addition to my collection of Mike Bartlett plays. I have professed my admiration for his work on numerous occasions on these pages. You see he just writes gripping drama. Hyper-real, sometimes going a bit over the top, but that is what you pay your money to see. Or at least I think you should. He can range widely across subjects, big and small. And he experiments with form. All in all probably the best of the current generation of British dramatists, of which there is currently a very fine crop. Just need a revival of 13 which I missed on its first outing.

Cock is a comedy which focusses on the machinations of the somewhat weak-willed John (Luke Thallon) as he attempts to choose between his two lovers M (Matthew Needham) and W (Isabella Laughland). It is a sort of companion piece to Bull, written a few years later, about workplace bullying. Both examine the “games that people play” and were kind of inspired by bull-fighting (and cock-fighting) which MB discovered were still very much alive when he visited Mexico City. There are no scene headings or stage directions or props in Cock, only lines between each of the “bouts” between characters (here marked with an electronic “bell”). MB stipulates that there should be “no mime”. He evens leaves out full stops and commas to express natural speech rhythms and inserts blanks to create equivalent pauses. So all your are left with is 2, then 3, then 4 actors circling each other and tumbling out the lines. Just the verbal sparring if you will. Of which there is plenty. It sounds tricksy but it is anything but as MB cannot help putting the right words, at the right time, into his characters. Emotions, as in his other works, are heightened by the formal structure. Everything is clarified.

It transpires that John was pretty young when he moved in with M. M is a bit of an emotional bully but when John wants out after seven years it’s pretty clear M is devastated. Especially when John falls in love with a woman. W doesn’t care that, until now, John has been gay. She pushes John into choosing when M invites them to, what you can probably divine, an “awks” dinner party. Especially when M’s Dad F (Simon Chandler) turns up.

There are plenty of killer comic lines but what MB really nails is the constant, and often brutal, ebb and flow of coercion and pleading that all four employ to get what they want out of the situation. John is agonised by having to decide between M and W, and by implication his sexual identity, bisexual not sitting comfortably, but he is also loving the attention. M is all over the words “emotional blackmail” but he does not want to lose John. W appears more reasonable but she is still determined to “win”. The world has moved on and become more fluid in terms of sexual identity but MB’s play still plainly shows that there are personal costs (and benefits) to be negotiated in all relationships. Monogamy exerts a powerful hold on all of us it seems. I would stab a guess that Cock is the sort of play Pierre de Marivaux would be writing if he were alive today.

This is I think the first time I have been party to Kate Hewitt’s direction. If there is a better way of showing off this play, here in the round, I can’t imagine it. I see she is in the chair for Jesus Hopped The A Train at the Young Vic next year. Excellent. I have espyed the Matthew Needham at the Almeida, and after this he will reprise his role as John (no relation) in Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Duke of York’s and Luke Thallon stood out in MB’s Albion at the same house and, I gather, in the Young Vic The Inheritance. I’ve only seen Isabella Laughland on the telly. Anyway even a chump like me can see all three actors are destined for even greater things. I can’t imagine Georgia Lowe will get an easier gig than this in terms of design, a red square on the floor in this red auditorium, but it still is the exact right solution.

With Press, his journalism drama, now over, until the next time presumably, I can’t wait for MB’s next work. I loved Press, obvs, most notably because it seemed to wind up many members of the fourth estate because “that’s not how a newspaper works”. Numbnuts. That’s the point. It’s a drama. Which uses your grubby, noble and powerful profession to shine a light on contemporary mores. Not a documentary. Which is also not “real” and constructed. As is your own “reality”. And your stories.