Lucky family. Never know what Dad is going to serve up as their Christmas theatrical treat(s). And always careful to at least try to conceal their disappointment. Having banked the virtual certain success of Mischief Theatre’s Magic Goes Wrong (of which more to come), and comforted by the reviews from its original run in Oxford last year, the Tourist felt confident enough to take a punt on this. And BD had already enjoyed one Snowflake provocation in the form of the second half of the incomparable Stewart Lee’s new show.
Now IMHO Mike Bartlett is incapable of writing bad plays, or indeed screenplays. They may not always come off entirely, as here, but there will always be enough in terms of concept, narrative, character, text, idea, form, to get your teeth into. He doesn’t mind tugging a few strings, emotionally or in terms of argument, or taking a few liberties with construction. Which explains Snowflake’s, appeal, and, slight, downfall.
Andy (Elliot Levey, who has a habit of popping up in all manner of fine work, which, in some cases, is partly down to him) has hired a church hall in Oxfordshire on Christmas Eve. We soon lean that he is rehearsing for a possible meeting with his estranged daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) who left home after the death of her mother, from whom Andy is still grieving. Mr Bartlett doesn’t make this too easy however devoting the whole first half, over 40 minutes, to a monologue in which Andy reveals his attempts to trace Maya and his own weaknesses and biases. This is not a man possessed of much in the way of self-awareness. Give or take your archetypal Boomer and, as such, far too reminiscent of dear Dad, sparking a lively family debate at the interval, largely between BD and the Tourist refereed by the SO and LD.
We knew the perspective would shift, but the catalyst, the arrival of straight-talking Gen Z’er Natalie, (Amber James, whose career I have been attentively following since the Guildhall, through the RSC), though not straight, was as unequivocal as I have come to expect from this writer. Natalie has come to collect crockery after and Xmas lunch and pretty soon the two are at loggerheads over political and social values, and, especially, identity. Both are typical of their “generation” but neither are cliches, and, on this, and given his gift for the gab, Mike Bartlett is able to hang some fine, credible and funny, dialogue and some spicey argument. And when Maya finally arrives MB, again with open heart, sets up the argument for private and public reconciliation of differences.
Easy enough to pick holes, which we did, but this was for me, if less for the others, a satisfying, shrewd and warming slice of theatre. Claire Lizzimore’s direction was well honed after the first run, rolling with the pronounced ebb and flow of the narrative, and Jeremy Herbert’s community hall set fit the Kiln (remember this was once Foresters Hall) to the manor born. And, whilst Ellen Robertson had a little less on her plate than her colleagues all three served up an acting feast. Ideal Christmas fare then.
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.
I was much taken, if not entirely convinced, by the British East Asian Yellow Earth Theatre company’s version of Tamburlaine at the Arcola 18 months ago. And this co-production, with Moongate, of a new play, Forgotten, by Daniel York Loh, which kicked off at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, sounded like it needed seeing.
Daniel York Loh looks like he is a busy fellow. When he is not writing he is acting, directing films or performing in a folk trio. Busy. Just like this play. It started off as a 5 minute script. It now runs to a couple of hours. Apparently his first draft ran to 300 pages. DYL has a lot to say and he means to say it. Mind you this is a story evidently worth telling. Giving a voice to the 140,000 Chinese labourers who left China to initially assist the French, and then the British, effort in WWI. Largely written out of history.
In trying to cram in as much of his research into these events as he can, the appalling famine and poverty blighting China at the turn into the C20, the hierarchical, violent and patriarchal village society, the volatile political situation and domination by foreign powers, the dream of escape and wealth, the Western view of China, and the Chinese view of the West, and Japan, at the time, the experience of the labourers in France and their shabby treatment, and their legacy, after the War, DYL offers a little too much exposition, a slight overdose of plot and leaves his characters looking a little too one-dimensional. Especially given only a six strong cast, (with some doubling up), the compact Arcola studio space and an experiment in form, namely having his band of villagers putting on a Chinese opera as they embark on their adventure.
So the cast and the creative team, director Kim Pearce, designer Emily Bailey, composer Liz Chi Yen Liew, lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, sound designer Luke Swaffield and movement director Quang Kien Van had their work cut out to make this work.
Work it does though and this I think is largely down to the fact that, weaved into the important history lesson, there is a believable human drama here, especially when the friends get to the Western Front in the second act. The play begins at the end but I’ll keep schtum on that. The cast are performing an opera which tells the tale of a Miraculous Traveller, (I am afraid I know nothing about Chinese classical literature), paralleling the story of the villagers. When all calms down we are in Horse Shoe Village in Shandong province in 1917 where Old Six (Michael Phong Le) and his wife Second Moon (Rebecca Boey) are struggling to earn enough to feed their young child. Big Dog (Camille Mallet de Chauny) is the village outcast, addicted to opium. Eunuch Lin (Zachary Hing) was castrated in a failed attempt to secure a position in the Emperor’s household. All are subject to the cruel whim of foul-mouthed Headman Zhang (Jon Chew). They agree to be recruited into the Chinese Labour Corps (from 1917 China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary) meeting the educated Professor (Leo Wan), and when they get to France, Wild Swan (Jon Chew again, equally potty mouthed) along the way.
Whilst there are battlefield scenes DYL wisely cuts these with other encounters and other characters, as well as the highly stylised opera, to offer multiple perspectives on the experience of the friends. This shines a little light on the more universal East Asian diaspora myth, “silent”, “hard-working” but largely disregarded and culturally held at arms length.
A valuable, if slightly awkward epilogue, explains what happened to Shandong province after the war and how the Chinese contribution was, literally, painted over in the now largely Americanised Pantheon de la Guerre. (America has a long history of mocking the contribution of France in global conflict). China was properly shafted at Versailles. Most of the surviving CLC returned home, but a few thousand stayed to build a Chinese community in Paris. The British CLC were given a medal, but it was bronze, not the silver awarded to everyone else who fought. There is a cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme which honours 842 CLC dead.
So overall Forgotten is an ambitious play, generously and vigorously told by an excellent British East Asian cast (Leo Wan, in particular, is as good here as he was in Tamburlaine and The Great Wave, and I look forward to seeing Michael Phong Le again). Lucy Bailey’s set is effective, Kim Pearce’s direction manages to maintain the momentum even as the scenes jump around. It may not quite be the finished article but it definitely deserves a wider audience. I spy a couple of harsh reviews in the national press. Ignore them.