“Niamh James, fresh out of drama school, does a terrific job in making Mara a real, living presence on stage”
The Park nails its colours to the mast immediately concerning the content of this play. On each seat is an A5 sheet of paper; on one side, MODERN SLAVERY AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN THE UK/SPOTTING THE SIGNS, and on the other, WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP, detailing how to report it, and the logos of eleven organisations that work to support victims and to end this horrific practice. Similarly, in the director’s note, just after the title page of the script, which all reviewers were kindly given at this performance, Alice Hamilton devotes one paragraph out of five to the statistics of global human trafficking – ‘a recent reckoning produced an estimated 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, of whom 10.1 million are children trapped in forced labour or sexual exploitation’.
This is what Eugene O’Hare has chosen to write a play about, and yet, in this play (running time two hours twenty minutes including interval), we see and hear four middle-aged men talk – frequently at length; O’Hare is fond of a long monologue – and talk and talk, whilst a teenage girl, introduced on page 35 of a 75 page script, remains mute throughout. We know she is Romanian, and that her name is Mara, but her thoughts, feelings and experiences do not exist. Niamh James, fresh out of drama school, does a terrific job in making Mara a real, living presence on stage, but it is unbelievable that in 2019, a male playwright can feel that the best way of exploring this subject is to present the only woman on stage as a passive, representative victim, whilst the men around her invite us to laugh with them and feel their fears and their personal pain. If the Bechdel test was conducted with a thermometer, the mercury would boil and the glass explode.
There is some stellar acting on display in this production. There isn’t a weak link in the five-strong cast, and Alec Newman, as the tortured (yes, have a think about that for a second) O’Rourke and David Schaal, as the terrifying Dollar, in particular, give bravura performances. There is a lot for the actors to get their teeth into; O’Hare relishes male language, whether it be quickfire banter, gangland menace or sentimental pissed-up musings. There’s no doubt that these have their charms. There are some good gags in this piece (alongside some more questionable ones) and Dollar’s nastiness is palpable, but added up, and in the light of the subject matter, it just all seems rather indulgent. The register of language is also uneven, both tonally, and in terms of time period. Dollar appears to have walked straight in from the 1950s East End of the Krays, whilst the other four characters are firmly rooted in the present (though does anyone now use the anachronistic ‘water closet’?)
James Perkins’ design works very well – it was a terrific creative touch for the outside of the stairs to visually echo the outside of a shipping container – and Alice Hamilton’s direction is steady and assured, but there simply is no getting past the blatant erasure of the female voice here. Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’; it’s clear that Eugene O’Hare’s Weatherman hasn’t got the faintest 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.