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“I cuss, you cuss, we all cuss, for Equus”

Posted on 19th February 2010. 7 Comments

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Donnchadh O’Conaill is underwhelmed by Equus, THIS Theatre Company, Assembly Rooms, 10th – 13th February 2010

The overall impression I left THIS Theatre’s production of Equus with was that I didn’t have one. I’m genuinely puzzled as to how a production with such excellent technical elements and genuinely thrilling set-pieces could also incorporate downright mediocrity at other points.

When I first saw a production of this play (not the Daniel Radcliffe revival, a student production in a different university), I thought it a superb piece of writing; on this viewing, it seems that either the script or myself have aged badly. Martin Dysart, a jaded psychiatrist in danger of succumbing to cynicism, is handed a teenage patient, Alan Strang, who has blinded five horses. In uncovering the boy’s motives, buried in the deep recesses of his psyche and sexuality, Dysart disinters secrets about himself he would have preferred to leave buried. On this attenuated plot, Peter Shaffer strings two and a half hours of social criticism and philosophical meanderings, undoubtedly powerful images succeeded by ponderous thematic exposition (Shaffer is not a writer to use a bon mot when he can spare several thousand mots of wildly varying quality).

The result of this technical work was best appreciated in the spectacular set-pieces

An assessment of this production must start by acknowledging the set. Three wooden walls closing off the back and sides of the stage, overhung with beams, it was visually one of the most impressive I have seen in any student theatre. Evidently the product of time, effort and ingenuity, it simultaneously created the effect of a cage and of the stables where crucial action unfolded. The wire mesh horse heads were beautifully designed, and appropriately phantasmagorial when their lights were on in the darkness. Dan Jeffries’s music was excellent, and mostly used to telling effect. The lighting was ambitious, achieving some wonderful moments, but also failing at certain points (e.g., blackouts on particular parts of the stage were sometimes spoiled by bleed from the lights elsewhere, and faces were at times lost in the gloom).

The result of this technical work was best appreciated in the spectacular set-pieces; the horse-riding which closed the first half, and the climactic blinding scene. The latter in particular was superb. The beautiful on-stage darkness, glowing lights on the horses’s heads and ominous music framed Paul Moss’s vivid performance, daring the audience to thrill to Alan’s audacity while simultaneously inviting us to pity his complete lack of awareness.

It was noticeable that in these successful scenes, the effects provided a focus for the action. Where this did not happen, the direction felt less certain, and occasionally was just sloppy. The most obvious example of this was the blocking. Much of the dialogue was staged on the apron, with Dysart talking to one or another of the many visitors to his office, but for some reason his interlocutor almost always remained seated at the other side of the stage. This managed to at once destroy any sense of place (you never felt like you were watching people in an office) and of dynamism, of each scene as an unfolding series of actions and interactions. Consequently, these exchanges were emotionally as well as physically static. More generally, I felt the use of the set did not match the skill of its construction. Practically all of the entrances and exits took place through a single door at the back, which not only made for some clunky scene changes, but occasionally made it unclear if an actor who was visible was meant to be in a particular scene.

The balletic movements which represent Alan’s first equine encounter were a good idea, but the execution was too timid; the flat blocking and polite negotiation of the furniture precluded a sense of wildness which was surely one of the aims of the exercise. These contrasts suggested to me that the directors, Bobbi Nicholson and Gregory Carter, were happier co-ordinating technical effects than delving into the messier realities of human co-existence.

The right delivery and interaction would have alerted the audience without having to spell it out its significance for them, but such subtleties were mostly absent

The lack of directorial nous was also apparent in the characterisations and the particular exchanges between characters. Again, to take one example, consider the moment where Alan first let slip that a horse has spoken to him. This is crucial, both as a piece of information for the audience, and as indicating how much Alan wants to tell Dysart (even though he doesn’t tell him in that scene). But neither the line nor Dysart’s response to it gave any indication that it was of any particular interest. The right delivery and interaction would have alerted the audience without having to spell it out its significance for them, but such subtleties were mostly absent.

intimacy…had been ruthlessly excised from the production as a whole

Any production of Equus rests to a great degree on the actor playing Dysart, the character who provides both the ideas framing the action and the emotional point of orientation for the audience. Mike Hutchinson had vocal and physical authority, but unfortunately these were not sufficient. His performance lacked the suppleness required to complement and tacitly undermine Dysart’s social and professional standing. In particular, the lack of variation in how he addressed the audience and the other characters removed most of the intellectual bite of the monologues, and almost all of the emotional depth of the character. Only very rarely did Hutchinson convincingly display the effect of an event, as opposed to informing us of its significance in a chunk of prose.

 Paul Moss started a little slowly; he conveyed an authentic teenage surliness, but not the sense that Alan is a damaged, fragile person. To be fair, this is the kind of thing best revealed by a sense of intimacy, which had been ruthlessly excised from the production as a whole. However, as the religious themes twisted their way into his persona, Moss’s performance picked up speed, and in the above-mentioned set-pieces he achieved a mania which was both believable and crucial in making these scenes dramatically as well as technically successful.

The rest of the cast struggled to carve out substantial parts from the bitty scenes and plot-maintenance roles to which Shaffer confines them. As the stand-out among the supporting players, I nominate Beth Greenwood as Alan’s mother. She finely judged her speeches about sex and religion, achieving a conviction which never strayed into breast-beating. Others struggled to make as convincing an impression. Kate Hunter seemed too worried about conveying the age and bearing of a magistrate to develop an individual character for her; Olivia Stuart Taylor sketched the horsey girl Alan falls for without ever colouring her in. Simon Radford, playing Alan’s father, deserves mention for his timing and facial expression in one of the very few funny moments in the play, when he emerges from an adult cinema with his son and his girlfriend.

 I mentioned that I struggled to gain an overall impression of the production, but if pushed I would say that it was a missed opportunity. There was enough merit on display to justify the thought that, with better-judged acting and directing, it could have been outstanding. The technical side of the production was large in scale and ambition, and largely succeeded in delivering both. The drama, however, was smaller, more confused, and for the most part unworthy of its mise en scène.

Photography: Ieuan Jenkins

7 Comments »

  • Donnchadh said:

    I should point out that the title of this review bears little or not relation to the piece itself. It was a light-hearted reference to a Far Side cartoon (http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_OxcECOiRVlA/SkFRreHgWrI/AAAAAAAAAg8/zHMDuJV1XaU/s1600-h/cuss-for-asparagus-250.jpg), which the D21 Theatre Editor has chosen to give bizarre prominence to. Bless her.

  • Monsieur Tickle Tackle said:

    omg. like, the penis was like so hot in this: yaah??

  • Anon said:

    the best thing i’ve seen in durham. simple as that.

  • Anon 2 said:

    Anon, you are utterly insane- it was the best set I’ve seen by far, but take away the set and there was NOTHING there

  • Emma J said:

    Agree with Anon 2…East, Pillowman, Guys and Dolls, Incident at Vichy, Shape of Things just on a different level.

  • Anon3 said:

    “The was nothing there”. That’s a little bit extreme isn’t it? I thought there were some great performances in this show.

  • Anon4 said:

    Both Anon and Anon 2 are way off. Maybe there were a few weak performances but the production, set, lighting and music were all incredible, almost of professional standard.