Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 30th June, 2018
The Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio is home again to yet another outstanding production. Director Stewart Snape’s take on the Peter Shaffer classic is instantly engaging, thoroughly engrossing and blisteringly devastating.
The mighty Colin Simmonds completely inhabits the role of disillusioned psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, charged with his most disturbing case ever: the case of an (un)stable boy who, for some reason or other, took it upon himself to blind six horses in one night. Simmonds’s Dysart feels as well-worn as his jacket, jaded in his erudition, and also very funny. Shaffer’s play has a rich seam of humour running through the soul-searching and philosophising and Snape gets the tone spot on. Dysart’s professional relationship with kindly magistrate Hesther comes across, thanks to the chemistry between Simmonds and Jo Hill, but of course, it is the scenes between Dysart and his patient that grip and thrill the most.
Sam Wilson and Colin Simmonds (Photos: Graeme Braidwood)
Sam Wilson is an excellent Alan Strang: pent-up and brooding at times, aggressively blaring out his thoughts at others. Wilson switches from teenage Alan to young boy Alan with ease in his re-enactments of key moments from his troubling life. An understanding develops between doctor and patient, and the mystery unfolds…
Sturdy support comes from Andrew Lowrie as Alan’s repressive father – nowadays we might call him ‘gammon’ – and Zena Forrest as Alan’s mother, credibly desperate (beneath a somewhat ill-advised wig!) as she seeks to understand but mainly exonerate herself from the shocking act of violence perpetrated by her child. Jess Shannon is matter-of-fact as Alan’s attempted love interest, Jill – a pleasing contrast to all the wordy soul-searching of the others; Angela Daniels makes a formidably efficient Nurse; while Josh Scott has his moment as the bewildered stable owner.
Phil Leonard makes a strong impression as the Young Horseman, and also as Nugget, one of the ill-fated horses. As is customary in this show, the horses are represented by actors in stylised masks, using movement (head tossing, foot stamping) to evoke horsiness. John Bailey’s creations for this production are elegant constructions of wire that the actors don like ritualistic masks. The tramping of their hooves, and assorted other noises, add to the tension.
The story is played out on a set of wooden floorboards and railings, suggestive of the stable, and also of a performance space: it is where Alan’s memories are staged, and also his place of worship. The face of a horse is stained into the wood, reaching up the back wall and along the floor, almost like a presence itself. Colin Judges’s design is beautifully efficient, superbly suited to Shaffer’s theatrically sophisticated script, where narration and reconstruction are entwined with more naturalistic scenes. John Gray’s splendid lighting, warm straw and cold blue, adds to the atmosphere.
This play about passion builds to a searing climax: the stylised re-enactment of the crime itself, a Bacchic moment, horrific in a symbolic way, leading Dysart to understanding at last, and brings to a close another superlative offering from the Crescent.
In a word: blinding.
Leave a comment | tags: Andrew Lowrie, Angela Daniels, Colin Judges, Colin Simmonds, Crescent Theatre, Equus, Jess Shannon, Jo Hill, John Gray, Josh Scott, Peter Shaffer, Phil Leonard, review, Ron Barber Studio, Sam Wilson, Stewart Snape, Zena Forrest | posted in Review, Theatre Review
Opera House, Buxton, Tuesday 8th November, 2011
Kerry Bradley’s set for this touring production of Peter Shaffer’s modern classic brings to mind the amphitheatres of Ancient Greece. The design of the horse masks that overlook the action (when not being worn by actors) are reminiscent of the bronze helmets of Ancient Greek warriors. When not required to appear in a scene, the actors remain onstage, like audience members at that Greek amphitheatre. This not only helps to keep the action flowing but it all adds up to remind us that this is not just a play about a disturbed young man but rather we are in the mind space of the psychiatrist trying to unravel the case, whose only recreation it would seem is to leaf through books about Ancient Greece, trapped as he is in a loveless marriage.
This threw a new light on the material for me. Dysart, the psychiatrist, narrates the action and links the scenes. The play starts and ends with him. This design concept brought to the fore that the play is really about the effect trying to understand the young man’s crime has on the shrink, rather than just being about the investigation of that crime itself.
Dysart himself becomes more neurotic as the story unfolds in a strong performance by Malcolm James. Only towards the very end did I find his worked-up state get in the way of some of his diction and some lines were lost.
The script is as involving and compelling as it always was. As horse mutilator Alan Strang, Matthew Pattimore plays a blinder. His Strang (he’s a bit strange, get it?) is a brooding, monosyllabic but tortured soul. The exchanges between patient and doctor are the strength of this production. It is pleasing to see Pattimore, last seen on tour as an impressive Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird, carrying the emotional weight of a show. It is a bold performance, even before the nudity, as he slips between Strang in the presence to Strang in recent memory and also Strang as a young boy. The play is not a whodunit, but a why-did-he-dun-it… The more we learn about this troubled character the more we feel for him, and even when Strang is being his most obstreperous, Pattimore never loses our sympathy for a second.
The transitions work very well, as characters pop in and out of the shrink’s office and in and out of anecdotes that elucidate the circumstances that led the boy to blind the horses. Aidan Downing portrays Nugget the horse with grace, hinting at the power of the beast, and there is sterling support from Steve Dineen and Anna Kirke as Alan’s ideologically conflicted parents, and from Helen Phillips as Jill Mason, with whom Alan has a brief but doomed encounter.
The play is rich in themes. The curing of damaged minds leads to de-individualisation. The way that the values of parents (in this case particularly the influence of religion on the young) can harm the development of the individual (Take a bow, Philip Larkin!)… The Ancient Greek flavour of this production made me think of the Oedipal aspects of the story. Alan blinds the horses (who are the incarnation of his Jesus-replacement, the God-horse Equus), rejecting the notion of the all-seeing deity and his mother’s value system. He is fuelled by the shame of sexual failure and doesn’t wish Equus to witness this inability to fulfil a primal urge. All this after having caught his dad in a porn cinema and feeling empathy with the man for the first time in his life. This is the anti-Oedipus, you might say.
The re-enactment of the blinding works as a catharsis (Greek theatre again) for Alan. The person most disturbed and in danger of becoming unhinged at the end is the psychiatrist. The very nature of his work has been thrown into question, along with the realisation that he has lived a life without an ounce of the passion Alan demonstrated in his twisted religion.
This is an effective production of a gripping and thought-provoking play. Michael Cabot’s direction could do with being a little tighter, a little sharper in parts, but on the whole, the power of the play comes across.
Leave a comment | tags: Buxton Opera House, Equus, Matthew Pattimore, Peter Shaffer, review | posted in Theatre Review