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.


Poison at the Orange Tree theatre review ****

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Poison

Orange Tree Theatre, 28th November 2017

Sometimes all you want from a play is for it to do exactly what it says on the packet. No sub-plots, symbolism, pointless characters, formal invention, stilted message. Just a powerful and involving story, well told. This is exactly what renowned Dutch playwright, Lot Vekemans, does in Poison. No wonder it has been translated and performed in multiple locations. Another terrific acquisition by Paul Miller and the Orange Tree team. Here it is translated by Rina Vergano who is the go-to for Dutch and Flemish texts.

Mind you this doesn’t make this a play that will have been easy to write, create or act in, and, in some ways, it isn’t easy to watch. Its subject, the loss of a child and the impact it has on a couple, is about as painful a subject as it is possible to imagine, for a “domestic” drama. Yet Ms Vekemans, takes us through all the ramifications of this dreadful event, with such a sure and sensitive hand that every line seems to ring true. A divorced couple meet in an unremarkable chapel building in a cemetery in France. (Blue carpet tiles, the designer’s catch-all for the banal, which Simon Daw wisely embraces here, along with those other staples, water-cooler and vending machine). We never get to know there names as, even after a separation of 9 years, they have no need to employ them. They were torn apart by the death of their son, Jakob, in a road accident, which eventually led to the journalist husband walking out on the millennial New Year’s Eve. They are here ostensibly to discuss what will happy to his body given that the land it lies in is contaminated. No one else turns up though (for reasons that become clear halfway through). They talk. There is pain, humour, tenderness, recrimination, jealousy, goading, misconception. In fact there is everything you might imagine a couple in this situation would put themselves through.

Paul Miller seems to have focussed on the “rediscoveries” in the last couple of years at the OT. Here he reminds us he can do contemporary plays standing on his head as well. Not literally. Like I say at the top there is no attempt to get directorially clever with the text here. There is no need. Movement, gesture, pauses, tensions, as well as words, everything worked.

This needed a couple of top drawer performances which, with Claire Price and Zubin Varla (who I have seen a bit of recently), is exactly what we got. Claire Price showed us a woman who could not move forward. Not because she was not trying nor because she was flawed in some dramatic sense. Just because she couldn’t accept what had happened. Which makes sense I think. She could be funny, she could be scathing, she could be analytical but always brittle and nervous underneath. Zubin Varla’s stilted ex husband had tried to moved on, (a new wife, a move to France from Holland), but was struggling with guilt for doing so. I swear I could hear him thinking at times. His intention to write a book about their bereavement is met with anger and incomprehension by her. The pain of their shared past infects this present but will continue into the future unless they can find some way to make it stop. There is some slight hope of redemption to this end at the end, but it is fragile.

Even beyond the bereavement itself though what is really, really striking about the play, in just 80 minutes, is the way it conjures up the whole skein of connections that a parted couple can recreate on meeting up, both comfortable and awkward, in movement, gestures and words. I was watching two real people, intimate strangers if you will, undergoing real experiences in pretty much real time. You’d think that would be easy to dramatise. It isn’t. This really was very, very good. It is one of those plays that gets better as you remember it.

The Unknown Island at the Gate Theatre review ***

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The Unknown Island

The Gate Theatre, 23rd September 2017

Saturday matinees at the Gate Theatre ¬†represent an astonishing bargain by “that London” standards (as do Wednesday matinees though they are limited to us economically unproductive types).

So I could traipse up to Wembley to watch Spurs stuff Bournemouth for just ¬£30 in a couple of weeks. But I would be a mile away from the action, there would be all the hassle of getting there and there would be extra trimmings to be paid for.¬†For just a tenner at the Gate though I get to see epic theatre of the highest quality from around the world right up close (this is, along with the Finborough, the most intimate of the “quality” fringe venues). This formula has been perfected over years, but took a step up under the stewardship of Christopher Haydon, and, on the basis of this offering, should continue now that Ellen MacDougall has taken the helm (she directed Chris Urch’s Rolling STone at the Orange Tree, one of the finest new plays of the last couple of years).

I am not going to pretend that this adaption by Ms MacDougall and dramaturg Claire Slater of a short story by Portuguese writer Jose Saramango was the finest work of theatre I have seen in recent months, but there was more than enough nourishment. And I don’t just mean the olives, bread and wine on offer as the cast fittingly broke character halfway through proceedings. This is a slippery, childlike but not childish, parable with multiple interpretations which was presented very well by the four strong cast of Jon Foster, Hannah Ringham, Thalissa Teixeira and Zubin Varla.

A man comes to the court of a King and will not leave until he is granted a ship to set out to discover the “unknown” island. The aloof King is reluctant at first but the persistent man’s wish is eventually granted and, in the absence of a crew and sufficient provisions, he sets off with the cleaning woman from the Court. They don’t get “there” but the man has a whacky dream along the way. That’s about it.

Except that within the tale are all manner of allusions to the structure of society, individual agency, the power of the imagination and ultimately what really matters in life. I spent the first half wrestling with the idea that there was some long arc of allegory here relating to the history of Portugal and the nature of revolution. Then it seemed to become more of a plea for the value of “self-discovery” but not in the way of the arse-hole, narcissistic blogger (for the avoidance of doubt I am aware of the irony here), but in a more humanistic, reflective way. Anyway wherever Mr Saramango was trying to take us there was value in the journey.

The set design by Rosie Elnile is striking, walls, floor and the benches around the entire space are bathed in a (practical as it turns out) turquoise, rubbery material and the actors are dressed head to toe in crimson. There is a striking red model boat and some comic balloons put in an appearance. The actors switch characters and often overlap. And at the end, in a nod to the end of our story, a window is opened to take us back into the real world of gullible tourists filtering down to the Portobello Road to buy tat.

I suspect that those who prefer their entertainment to be of a more literal or mimetic persuasion may come out feeling a little diddled, but if you are a bit more elastic in your tastes this could be for you. Of the rest of the season Suzy Storck looks most interesting though I have no real notion as to why. Still for the price of a couple of pints in the Prince Albert downstairs I will happily test that notion.