Equus 40 years on with Elliott Marsh, head of Nomadic Artists. (Sydney Fringe Festival Interview)
I saw the fortieth anniversary reading of Equus a couple of weeks back. You can read my review of the reading here. The reading was the introduction to a large-scale project by Nomadic Artists to bring this fascinating and controversial play to the Sydney audiences in 2013 as a part of the Sydney Fringe Festival. As with most events of high quality, word spread, and now Nomadic Artists are planning a series of school performances and a multiple requests to have the play performed at different venues around Australia.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Equus, the Peter Shaffer play written and first performed in 1973, you should know it is one of the most frequently banned and controversial plays of the last fifty years. With its multi-layered themes, shocking central crime, on stage nudity, fetishized sexual subtexts and extraordinary final monologue in which those of us who proclaim to be “normal” may really be mad, Equus would never have achieved the notoriety it had, if it wasn’t impeccably written. It becomes a searing, precise target at the human heart, such that each audience member, regardless of race, sex, class or nationality can see themselves perfectly reflected in, not only the deeply troubled Alan Strang, but also in the controversially eloquent Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist. This psychic penetration is made all the more remarkable when you consider Strang and Dysart are societal opposites, each searching the other for a way out of their own nightmare.
Through the committed vision of Elliott Marsh and his small but driven team at Nomadic Artists, we, here in Sydney are lucky enough to have the opportunity to see an exciting and deeply intimate production of the play. I caught up with Elliot last week to have a chat about the forthcoming production of Equus to be held at The Forum Theatre Leichhardt within The Italian Forum 11 September through to 28 September, as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival. I asked Elliott about various aspects of the play, and we started with some brief chatter about how magically Equus is catching on around town and around the country:
Lisa – Tell me a little about your creative team.
Elliot – Our composer, Jessica Wells worked on Happy feet, with Baz Luhrmann on Australia, and with the Australian Ballet. She will be composing original music for the show. Our amazing movement director Lia comes from a background of physical theatre including being in a circus for many years. Lia she is focused on how to create the presence of horses on stage so that it occurs as a believable representation of creatures on stage. Our director – Michael Campbell just finished working on Salome in Adelaide. Michael tells his own story of Equus: when he was a kid, he remembers being in London and the three shows he wasn’t allowed to see where The Cars that Ate Paris, Oh Calcutta and Equus. His parents wouldn’t let him go and see it. Still to this day he can remember that. So Equus is important to him, an essential part of his relationship to theatre as a child, coming full circle in the fact that now he has the chance to direct Equus.
Michael an Tobhi have Co-Designed the show with Tobhi realising the design from the concept in Michael’s head. Shaffer is very specific in Equus about how he wants the play to be designed.
Lisa: I knew the heads had to be very specific. I didn’t realize the design component was such an essential condition of Shaffer. The play has an overall encompassing aesthetic that Shaffer wants re-created.
Elliott: The play was quite minimalistic in its costuming, but there are certain elements Shafffer is very specific about. He wants to create the world of Equus and this means there are certain conventions he wants maintained. Therefore, the horses heads that we have come from a production of Equus from thirty years ago from Melbourne. Those heads arrived last weekend, fresh from being used in a fortieth anniversary event in Melbourne that closed last weekend. The heads are very timeless anyway, and in fact look quite futuristic. Now they are paying forward to another production of Equus that speaks to the cyclical philosophy of Nomadic Artists as creating from something already in existence and revitalizing it as something new.
Lisa – To borrow the heads ties in heavily with the 40th anniversary concept also.
Elliot – Yes. I mean Kevin Jackson who directed the reading was in the original show in Sydney as a horse. Everyone associated with the production has their own little Equus story to tell. Lyn Lee, one of our cast, remembers seeing Equus in Melbourne and being deeply moved by the horses in that production. This is addressing the importance of the horses and how evocative and powerful they are as carrying one of the most essential elements of the show. They don’t have lines, but their power to move the audience is enormous, with many people describing tears.
Lisa – Which speaks also to the complicated relationship the horses have to the narrative in Equus via the protagonist but also through Dysart himself and his connection with the horses and the whole religious theme. So to make them kind of half men gives the play a very strong mythological component that is very important to the structure of the play. They have to be more than just horses and/or just men.
Elliott – Yes, particularly when the horses have a kind of centaur energy to them. Michael the director wants the play’s themes to focus on masculinity and masculine sexuality so you’ve got this young Alan, young teenager coming to terms with his identity, about what he likes, versus what his parents are saying is right and wrong. Then you’ve got Dysart, this well-rounded psychiatrist who knows about life, he’s sorted it out, yet he hasn’t kissed his wife in six years, he’d rather go off and read history books than be intimate with anyone and yet he’s treating all these young people for insanity. His question becomes, well, where is my passion in life? Because this kid is out in the fields running around with horses and loving it and I am keeping myself inside, in my cave. So it asks the question, what is masculinity? How do you get passion in your life? And What is normal and whose to say what that is?
Lisa – And then of course a big issue for the whole masculinity mythology is that crucial juncture where Alan can’t perform, and the play then approaches the climax of the devastating crime. But is lack of performance with Jill, is all tied in with the external presence, the horses who are god, watching him and judging him. Which of course, brings us back to the horses again.
Elliott – These elements all come out because of how well written the play is. Everyone involved with any of the productions keep saying how well written it is. It’s so intriguing, there’s no word on that page that is not there for a reason.
Lisa – That comes through in the timelessness of the play.
Elliott – Yes! Because we’re still trying to sort out the same crap that we were forty years ago.
Lisa – And remarkably we still have a very peculiar relationship to people who have mental problems, as if we don’t want to see, don’t want to hear don’t want to know about it. Please fix it. Just fix it. We can’t confront it. Which brings us to your earlier point about the question of what is normal and how much of our true self do we sacrifice just to fit in, being a central theme of the play.
Elliott – And I think everyone knows someone who has gone through a tough time be it with depression or clinically diagnosed mental illness and not known what to do in that situation. Also, I know in my life I have had time when I ask myself if what I am doing is “normal” or am I a bit weird? You compare yourself to others. It takes a lot for Alan’s parents to allow him to go and be treated, and then they still feel the need to go and speak to Dysart and give their point of view to him, versus just letting Dysart treat him? So what compels them to go and interfere with treatment, besides their desire to remove themselves from the responsibility of what their son has done. I also think, in some ways, they don’t want to be compared with that, and they want the psychiatrist to tell them that.
Lisa – I also wanted to ask you about the play’s connection to the gay community. Equus isn’t a gay play, neither of the primary characters are gay and to my knowledge Shaffer isn’t gay. So why does the gay community have such a strong affinity with the play do you think?
Elliott – I do think over the years that Equus has been misinterpreted by many critics. It has been accused of being a “gay” play by the non gay community, and while It has strong overtones of homo-eroticism within it, Shaffer was very clear that it was not a gay play. But fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what “outsider” group you belong to, being a teen and growing up and trying to find your place in the world, identity, feeling like an outsider and most of all that complex relationship with parents. “This is what I want to do with my life. My mother is telling me what to do. My father is absent from so many aspects of my life.” I think many young gay men go through these problems, even though Alan doesn’t have to be gay. A lot of young gay people probably can’t verbalize the difference between right and wrong and right for me and wrong for me and these are themes that come out through Equus. So they might claim Lady Ga Ga, Madonna and Equus.
For me growing up as a teenager, I was unsure about many things in my life, and then when I read Equus, I thought “Oh, I’m Alan” because that is my Mum and that is my Dad, and I can see myself so much in that character. In a sense I wanted to be that character. I can’t explain why other than to gain validation for what I was going through. There is a fantasy in being naked and free and that attitude of “who gives a shit”. He is the pinnacle of freedom. He doesn’t care about anything.
Lisa – It’s interesting because in social mythology, the “horse thing” tends to be a very feminine thing. It’s the little girls that love horses.
Elliott– That is actually a line in the play. the character of Jill asks Alan why he is so fascinated with horses when it’s really a girl thing. Then, at the beginning of Act two, Dysart compares a horse with a ballerina. I think this is Shaffer evening it all out, because by including these very female aspects, he introduces the feminine. But often when something is taboo, people like to make that a gay thing.
Lisa – Dysart is such a strong affirmation of the behavior of Alan Strang I can understand why young gay males might want to claim that affirmation for themselves.
Elliott – Also, and this isn’t true in all cases, some younger gay men can have problems with their father and issues with the father son dynamic, especially if the son has come out. And Alan has a problematic relationship with his father and then suddenly there is Dysart who is a very strong father figure, but when he tries to deconstruct Alan, he can’t come up with an easy answer. In the end it is the audience that are invited to make what they will of the play.
Lisa – It does end up being a very intense experience.
Elliott – it isn’t a relaxed play. It does encourage the audience to think along very complex lines, which is a good thing.
Lisa – I railroaded you off the talk of this particular production. Tell me more about it? What about the set design?
Elliott – Well as I mentioned the director has a very clear idea of what he wants and so Tobhiyha Fella is placing Equus, almost in a theater in the round style. It will be a very open and inviting set. It is inviting you to be a part of what is happening on stage. The set itself is very altar like, it has these pillars that fold down into a bench or a bed or the actors move them around and then the horses all have their own little podium. It’s like a horse temple, where the audience is in and around that. The set, where possible, is being built from past shows to add to the new life cycle of the things that already exist – nothing is owned everything is shared. The aesthetics of the play have come from many different backgrounds. And why shouldn’t theater be like that?
Lisa – What about costume design?
Elliott – Again based on the directors concept. A very casual costuming, quite RM Williams style. Sort of outback. RM Williams boots and leather pants to emphasize the bondage motifs of the play. So there is a sort of separation with these horses in this sort of leather fetish wear, and everyone else in this country-style clothes. Then the colors will reflect the character and their personality. Much of the story is then told through the lighting, which is why the set is kept minimal. So, its like the creatives have all had very big experiences in their careers. So all these heightened experiences are being distilled down to create this very intimate experience of a very big play. There is nothing small about Equus, but in this way we have a large vision, large eyes being used to focus on this one production of this enormous play.
Lisa – That sounds so intimate, but that is the joy of Equus isn’t it? It is such a personal play? You feel as though it were written for you.
Elliott – Yes, and it crosses so many different performance styles as well because characters will be having conversations with each other on the stage and all of a sudden one will start addressing the audience, and commenting on the conversation that was just had. “Did you get what was just said? ‘Cause that was important. Hang on, let me tell you again.” That’s exactly what happens because Shaffer’s just like, you need to get this so we can move on. Also, the play jumps from the present into the past in the same scene. And one character will be in the past and turn around and have a conversation with a character in the present and then turn back around. There is all this time shifting going on.
Lisa – Yes! it does this with dream and vision as well.
Elliott – Yes! And then Shaffer really dives into it by going into Alan’s mind and metaphysically bringing out what’s going on in there. So with the horses, they go crazy in one scene because that’s what’s going on in Alan’s mind, all this tension and all this confusion and everything happening, and he chooses to physically represent that. There are so many different styles that work together to create such an engaging piece.
Lisa – So, finally, what made you choose Equus?
Elliott – Well besides the personal attraction I have to the play, I was interested in Equus above other plays that I call favorites because of the fortieth anniversary , but also because I think a lot of the controversy is from a misunderstanding about the meanings of the play. When I saw that it wasn’t being produced in Sydney, I thought it was a shame because it’s the perfect opportunity for school kids to see it. Kids can see something live on the stage that they are dealing with in their own lives. Exciting to get that from a play rather than from Facebook or the news or something. Equus is an amazing opportunity to give something that I saw was missing.
We’ve also written some excellent educational workshops specific to HSC students that take in the production notes and the directors notes and how to realize the vision of a play. We have six matinees that are on offer for schools and universities in which you can go behind the scenes and get a real insight into the production and its unfolding.
In the end, Equus is a reminder of what it is to be young and how wonderful that can be. You can do anything and you have so many dreams. Its life without the cynicism. That is the timeless quality of Equus.
Equus is showing at the Sydney Fringe Festival from Wednesday 11 September through to Saturday September 28. You can buy your tickets here.