They still talk – across the dining table, in the theatre foyer, over a cup of coffee – about the first time Equus was staged in Sri Lanka. More than three decades have slipped by, and the play still holds its own, looming large in many memories. Controversial, shocking, so far ahead of its time, Equus was a shot of pure adrenaline delivered straight to the heart of the theatre scene in Colombo. The cast was superb, the production faultlessly timed and audiences responded with enthusiasm – the play was sold out ten nights in a row to great critical acclaim.
It’s no surprise then, that the revival of Equus has everyone sitting up straight and paying attention. Presented by the British Council, the play once again boasts a marvellous cast, this time under the direction of Steve de la Zilwa. Rohan Ponniah, who famously portrayed psychiatrist Martin Dysart, reprises the role with Hiran Abeyesekera playing the troubled Alan Strang. The boy’s parents, Dora and Frank are played by Tracy Holsinger and Shanaka Amarasinghe. Subha Wijesiriwardene is Jill Mason, Ranmali Mirchandani is Hesther Salomon, and Janice De Zoysa is the nurse, while Dominic Kellar plays Harry Dalton.
Equus follows the strange and terrible story of Alan Strang. Playwright Peter Shaffer constructed the disturbing play around a genuine incident in which a young boy took a spike to a stable full of horses, blinding six of them. In the foreword to the script, Shaffer himself describes the play as his attempt to “create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible.”
The result is unsettling to say the least. A series of gut wrenching, incendiary encounters between the middle aged psychiatrist and the stable boy produce for the audience a bewildering range of explanations for Alan’s bizarre obsession with horses. By the end, the two will traverse space, time and memory as Dysart struggles to unravel Alan’s motivations and attempts to understand and ultimately, to heal his patient.
When Ceylon Theatres presented the Tony Award winning Equus in 1978, Steve counted himself lucky to have been involved with one of the most successful productions in recent history. When the play was revived in West End in 2007, Steve decided to do the same in Colombo. After all, “no local theatre-goer under the age of forty five years [in Sri Lanka] today had seen this production,” he says.
The published Equus script is the result of an unusual collaboration between Shaffer, the brilliant John Dexter in the role of director, and John Napier as designer, he explains. His tremendous appreciation for the skill of the three men is manifested in his own handling of the play – which is to deviate as little as possible from that first, iconic presentation.
Steve sees Dexter’s vision not only in the minimalist, highly flexible stage set up, but also in the almost cinematic nature of the play. That Equus affords a dramatic visual spectacle is undoubted. The play is a masterpiece of ensemble playing – the cast is on stage from beginning to end, seated in a circle, their attention directing the audience to the action playing out in the centre. The effect is only enhanced by how, at key points, they break out into an eerie humming that will have your hair standing on end.
The “horses” themselves are masterpieces of suggestion and symbolism. Shannon Raymond plays the horse Nugget and is credited with choreographing the six horses in the production. With their wonderful masks and raised hooves, the actors use the silhouettes of their bodies to mimic the torso and forelegs of the animals. Watching them, it is easy to appreciate Alan’s strange fascination with the beasts, as Dysart himself seems to do.
“It works because the script is so powerful and the characters are so well defined,” says Rohan, who initially played the part of Dysart as a 24 year old, and is now much closer to his character’s age. Nearly 30 years later, the role still offers a new and rich experience he reveals. “There is a life of experience that one brings to bear,” he explains. “Dysart’s dilemma, Dysart’s tragedy, is that Alan is a symbol for him, and that treating him is the last straw that ultimately brings to the surface all Dysart’s own paranoia, disappointments and questions about how he has lived…and those are questions, that without a doubt, as you get into your forties and fifties, are at the top of your mind.”
It is particularly interesting then, that Hiran and Subha, who are amongst the youngest in the cast, believe that Equus offers its own set of insights to the young. “I can see young people finding a connection to the play simply because of Alan Strang,” says Subha, who plays Alan’s brief and ill fated love interest in the play. Alan’s fumbling, destructive attempts to establish his own truths, are mirrored in our own generation, Hiran agrees. Subha elaborates, “I think their lives and restlessness, their need to be heard and understood, is perfectly characterized in Alan.”
As the only member of the original cast, Rohan says that he is far more sensitive to such nuances and subtleties in the play. “If it’s played properly, it’s the substance that ultimately comes through, whether it’s 2007 or 1978.” And he is not alone in his determination to bring the play alive for a new generation of theatre goers. It is fortunate that this new generation is well represented in the current cast. For Tracy, the opportunity to play Dora is the realization of an old ambition. “This part is a part I’ve wanted to play since I was 14,” she says. While much of the psychology in the play is no longer quite shiny and new, Tracy sees its handling of mental illness as particularly relevant to Sri Lanka. Especially in a society like ours, showing that you can fight out these demons within you, using words and the help of someone who is trained to do that, rather than resorting to violence is one essential insight the play offers, she says.
It becomes apparent that Equus does more than explore a single difficult problem; it leaps gleefully into the fray, forces its audience to confront one explosive issue after another, and then sits back to watch the fun. Sexual repression, religious fanaticism, the true nature of spirituality, acceptance, self determination and the right to judge are all themes in the play, says Shanaka. “It also leads you to question what is “normal”…if anyone finds an animal sexy, we’re going to think that’s not normal; but normal is a matter of perspective.”
For the audience the brilliance of Shaffer’s expression makes each such perspective keenly felt. In the end, seated around the stage, we are both witnesses and jury to Dysart’s anguished cry: “And now it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave – ‘why me?…why me?…Account for me!” and we must remain frozen with him in the silence that follows his last line: “There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.”
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 7, 2007. Words by Smriti Daniel.