“The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping”
This new musical – book and lyrics by April de Angelis, music and lyrics by Lucy Rivers – brings to life William Hogarth’s shocking 1751 etching ‘Gin Lane’ portraying grotesque caricatures of people suffering from the Gin Craze that was rife in the early part of the eighteenth century. As the curtain rises, we meet a number of these ladies under the influence who sing, dance, and extol the virtues of their favourite tipple. A pawn broker’s sign hangs close to the stage, the same sign as in Hogarth’s print.
The set (designed by Hayley Grindle) is built on two levels and reinforces a view of the class divide with the wealthy Fielding family and a semi-sozzled Queen Caroline appearing on the upper level whilst the gin ladies are firmly rooted on the ground and at the bottom of society. Through the shadows of wooden beams and hanging ropes, we can see various musical instruments: harpsichord, violin, cello, double bass, guitar, timpani. Each member of the eight strong ensemble takes their turn at becoming the band. Plus the ever-present MD Tamara Saringer at the keys.
For much of the time we could describe this as a folk musical. The singing is gentle and refined, the lyrics ballad-like in form, and the duets between the two main leads contain excellent close folk harmonies. The arrangement of the songs is most striking particularly those making use of violin and cello underlay.
The energy of the full ensemble numbers has the audience clapping and whooping. “Gin Dive” is the standout song that reappears close to the end in a poignant unaccompanied close harmony version. “It’s the Law” becomes a good old cockney knees-up with comedy trombone. Many of the scenes can be described as bawdy – and are especially enjoyed because of that – at times they are out-and-out plain rude.
The plot – or the message of the show, perhaps – is summed up with the song title, “What does a woman have to do to get a better life?”. We follow the journey of Mary (Aruhan Galieva) who whilst working as a servant is knocked up by the visiting priest, kicked out into the street, tricked into giving away her baby, and narrowly avoids rape and prostitution by setting up as a gin hawker. We learn that life for a woman is not a bed of roses. But then, Mary befriends Lydia (Paksie Vernon), her saving grace.
Director Michael Oakley produces the most spirited scenes when the gin women appear on stage together. If their individual characters do appear on the caricature side of sincere then we can allow that they may have been first based upon a cartoon. But, in the midst of tragedy, despite the best efforts of this hard-working cast, there is little tension to be felt and we remain unmoved. Particularly, much of the momentum is lost after the interval as attention turns away from the rumbustious Gin Lane into the genteel home of the foppish Henry Fielding (Alex Mugnaioni) and his do-gooder sister Sarah (Rachel Winters).
April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers have created a most fascinating feminist – and musical – response to an interesting period of English history which reflects well on Hogarth’s masterpiece that initially inspired the idea.
“to praise each element of Equus individually is unfair, because it is the tandem of these parts that makes the production truly divine.”
It isn’t uncommon to see a play emotionally move an audience – to make them feel the pathos or joy that the characters are experiencing. However, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen theatre physically move an audience – to make them lean forward, gasp, and let their jaws hang for extended periods of time. It’s a testament to the power of Equus, then, that the audience member sat next to me – along with many others – barely seemed to even be in their seat, so moved were they by the ferocious and sinewy stallion of a play that was taking place.
Equus centres on Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), a seventeen-year-old boy who blinded six horses over the course of one night. It rests with psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) to uncover the motivation behind the crime, although in doing so he is also forced to interrogate his own beliefs on religion, passion, and purpose. The story is framed chiefly around this patient-doctor dynamic, although a host of other characters are implicated in Martin’s analysis, including Alan’s parents Dora (Doreene Blackstock) and Frank (Robert Fitch), forming a claustrophobic and tense psychological drama. But the true genius of Peter Shaffer’s writing (also of Amadeus fame) is that this paradigm is only one of the levels on which Equus operates; bubbling under the scientific surface is a much more non-secular interrogation of the social and cultural values that cultivated the environment in which Alan could be compelled to carry out such acts as he did. Shaffer’s rhetoric can be transcendentally poetic, weaving metaphor upon metaphor into a textured tapestry that cuts to the very core of what it means to be alive.
The writing never strays into the territory of being overly-ruminative though. Ned Bennet’s visceral and kinetic direction ensures that the intellectual complexities of the play are being constantly physicalised and theatricalised, with the help of Shelley Maxwell’s inventive and raw movement direction; Alan’s bed being used as a trampoline on which he is brutally flung around under a vicious strobe light, for example, serves to manifest the emotional realities of the character. This is heightened tenfold by the soul-searing strings of the sound design (Giles Thomas), the unnerving, subliminal lighting (Jessica Hung Han Yun), and the slick and stripped back set design (Georgia Lowe). The performances, too, are roundly sublime – Varla especially is revelatory, fully owning the hefty language of his many monologues, immaculately delivering the thematic nuance of the speeches with drive and agency. Credit must also go to the transportive ensemble and animal work, as many of the cast also embody horses during the play, particularly Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget.
However, to praise each element of Equus individually is unfair, because it is the tandem of these parts that makes the production truly divine. The quality of the writing exacerbates the direction, which exacerbates the performances, which exacerbates the design, and so on ad infinitum. It constructs a whole reactor of impeccably crafted atoms, all meteorically colliding with each other in a seamless symbiosis that creates the nuclear level of theatrical and spiritual energy that is transferred to the audience and galvanises them to move. Equus is utterly celestial.