Equus (Trafalgar Studio 1)

Peter Shaffer’s Equus remains a play of almost unbearable intensity, with its touch of the confessional, religious mania, and deep eroticism. It’s also hard to pull off, with humans depicting horses and a heavy dose of telling, not showing, other than those two pivotal scenes that close each act.

Ethan Kai in Equus.

Dr Martin Dysart is a child psychiatrist, who uses games and tricks to get into the mind of those who come to the mental hospital for treatment. One such is disturbed teenager Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses in the stable where he worked.

At first Alan only communicates by singing TV ad jingles, but slowly Dysart starts to get through, but in doing so to reach the boy “in misery” (as friend and magistrate Hesther puts it) he only awakens his own unhappiness and neurosis.

Zubin Varla in Equus

Dysart can be a showy role: although originated by Alec McCowen on stage, actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Burton (who went on to star in the film version which I have seen many times) were attracted to the role, which is on stage throughout the 2 hour 40 running time, and even before, as audiences adjust to the sparse set surrounded on three sides by white curtains.

Here, Zubin Varla is quiet, nervous, twitchy. At first his Dysart seems ineffectual, but slowly his compelling performance commands attention, and without any actorly bombast, becomes one of the best I’ve seen this year. The doctor who cannot “gallop”, who sits every night resenting the woman, his wife, opposite him, who dreams of sacrificing children.

As Alan, Ethan Kai provides a staggering breakrhrough performance of animal intensity as the plot develops, and we learn how his parents’ conflict with religion and his growing fascination with sex has led to him first becoming erotically obsessed with the Cruxifiction, then with the feel, smell and sweat of horses.

Robert Fitch, Ethan Kai and Zubin Varla in Equus

Using flashes and washes of coloured light, staged reconstructions, herbal cigarettes, and the imagination, Ned Bennett’s production, which has transferred from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, illuminstes Shaffer’s play and underlines its power to provoke, shock, disturb and profoundly move an audience.

Although this is ultimately a two-hander for most of its running time, the supporting cast remain essential, with Ira Mandela Siobhan’s Nugget, Robert Fitch’s Mr Strang, Doreene Blackstock’s Mrs Strang, and Natalie Radmail-Quirke’s Hesther of particular note.

Shelly Maxwell’s strong and sensual choreography, Giles Thomas’s sound design, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting all contribute to making this a powerful revival I will remember for a long time.

Equus continues at the Trafalgar Studios until 7 September. Photo credits The Other Richard.

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Lettice and Lovage (Menier Chocolate Factory)

This revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1980s play is one of two productions running at the Menier at the moment, both directed by Trevor Nunn.  It is the story of a theatrical tour guide who embellishes historical fact to entertain those who visit Fustion House (‘fusty old house’, in our minds).

The first scene is replayed four times across a fifteen minute slot, in which Miss Douffet makes the most of an Elizabethan legend on an old staircase, delivered in an exaggerated stage voice.  Douffet is played by Felicity Kendal, who wears loud and vibrant clothes and has tattoos on her foot and ankle.

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Her over-the-top style gets her in trouble twice, first with a tetchy historian who asks for her sources, then with a civil servant who commands her presence in the offices of the Preservation Society.  This is the staid Miss Schoen, whose father was a German art publisher, but who hates theatrics.  She’s played by Maureen Lipman, who is stiffly arch, especially in her exchanges with twittery secretary Petra Markham.

The turning point comes with a very unconvincing prop cat, and a wildly addictive drink which contains the herb lovage.  It turns Miss Douffet almost human (and we discover her forename is Lettice), and allows Miss Schoen to unbend as she becomes more tipsy (and her forename is Charlotta).  Lettice talks of her mother who played both Richard III and Falstaff – with utilisation of the same pillow for costume.  Lotte tells of a bomb plot she and a boyfriend had in their youth to destroy the hated Shell Building.

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The final act is bizarre, with Sam Dastor as a solicitor defending Miss Douffet (she engages him because his name is Bardolph, which suggests something rather different to the reserved man we see before us).  It would spoil the fun to say why she has been arrested and charged, and we are caught up in an amusing piece of roleplay re-enacted for us in the final few minutes.

This is not a ground-breaking play, but it is acted well, and is a perfectly reasonable piece of entertainment.  I liked the relative simplicity of the sets, which include a picture frame which showcases the sense of where we are (the exterior of Fustion House, the terraces of Earl’s Court), and found the performances on point for the ridiculous plot.

Amadeus (National Theatre, Olivier)

This production of Peter Shaffer’s play came to a close last night, but returns to the National in 2018, so don’t despair if you missed out this time.

The Oscar-winning film, made in 1984, might be the version most people know of this play, but that was considerably opened out with some plot points changed.  F Murray Abraham gained a Best Actor win for his performance as Salieri, the Court Composer who wished to remain as immortal as his professional foe, the childish yet supremely gifted Mozart.  Mozart himself was played by Tom Hulce, who gave the role a considered amount of pathos alongside the hyper crudeness of the man.

I mention all this because I rate the film as one of my all-time favourites.  I have seen the play performed before, at the Theatre Royal York, fourteen years ago, with Malcolm Rennie as Salieri and Daniel Hart as Mozart, in a production directed by Tim Luscombe.  Looking back now, it seems the press didn’t think much of it, and it was presented very much as an intimate monologue by a man well aware of his own mediocrity.

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The National’s revival, directed by Michael Longhurst, is a large-scale production which uses the Olivier’s drum revolve as an orchestra pit, presents dance versions of Mozart’s greatest pieces, and suffers from an absolutely ghastly performance from Adam Gillen as the precocious composer who crashes about, pouting, posturing, gurning, and lisping, throughout.  Some may argue this is the part ‘as written’ but it has no colour, no gradients, no balance, and as such is a fatal flaw in the play for me.  You may wish to laugh at Mozart or even cringe at his foul-mouthed excesses, but when the play turns tragic and the final scenes require pathos, I didn’t get any sense of it.

 

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Lucian Msamati plays Salieri, and, some curious accent choices aside (if you’re playing Italian you either play it throughout, or don’t bother), he is very good indeed, whether ingratiating himself with the audience, or raging at the God who has left him with the ambition to achieve fame, but has bestowed only an average talent, destined to be forgotten.

His ravings as an old man, wheelchair-bound, and stating that he killed the great composer Mozart, is not believed, and so in obscurity his name will remain.  I didn’t care for the modern-dress staging of the early scenes, where the orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia, who are wonderful) take selfies on their phones, and Salieri takes a pause to guzzle Krispy Kremes.

But the music – and the set staging for these pieces – can forgive a great deal and elevate a middling and long-winded production into something rather more.  You may agree with Tom Edden’s Joseph II, who complains that there are ‘too many words’, but I guarantee you will be moved by the Kyrie from the Requiem.