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Far From Horseplay – A Review of Equus on Opening Night October 19, 2007

Posted by ravana in Uncategorized.
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I rarely feel qualified enough to review a play, but in this case, I will make an exception. I have read Peter Shaffer’s Equus, watched a UK production of it, and played a lead role in another of the playwright’s plays, so I thought I would give it a go.

First off, kudos to Steve De La Zilwa for getting off his TV-commercial-making ass and contributing to the Sri Lankan theatre scene after nine long years. I watched his last production, Anna Weiss, in 1998 and thought, at the time, that it was the best piece of English language theatre I had ever seen in Sri Lanka. De La Zilwa’s calibre of theatre talent must not be allowed to lay dormant for another near-decade.

Like Anna Weiss, Equus also involves a powerful psychological journey. The plot revolves around psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart’s (Rohan Ponniah’s) attempts to discover what circumstances led Alan Strang, a sensitive and highly passionate boy of seventeen, to gouge out the eyes of six horses he loved. Through the writing of the play, Shaffer tried to come to terms with a similar real life incident that he had heard of, but could not understand the cause behind.

The play is one of the most layered I have come across. It explores what might happen when natural personal desires meets with the artificial external repression of those desires, through the themes of religion and sexuality. Interpersonal relationships are explored: mother and son, doctor and patient, father and son, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, man and animal, man and God to try and ascertain what caused Alan Strang to blind the horses. It is not the type of play you would expect a full-house for on a Thursday opening night in Colombo, but there it was.

Rohan Ponniah, ever the acTOR, was expected to be brilliant as always, and did not disappoint. If anything, at times, his powerful theatricality may have outdone itself by threatening to drown out interactions with some of the other performers.

Hiran Abaysekara, was for me, serendipity personified. I had never seen him on stage before and he was powerful, controlled and perfectly physically cast for the role of the seventeen-year-old Alan. I look forward to following his future career. He had good chemistry with the sexy Subha Wijesiriwardena, who infused the character of Alan’s blossoming love interest, Jill Mason, with her natural vivaciousness.

Tracy Holsinger, played a natural Dora Strang – mother to Hiran Abeysekara’s Alan. Her relatively reserved, controlled interpretation was probably the most faithful to her character’s nationality – we do sometimes tend to forget that Sri Lankans are more physically expressive as a culture.

Shanaka Amarasinghe, playing Frank Strang, father to Abeysekara’s Alan and wife to Holsinger’s Dora, was powerful in his role and, next to Abaysekera, probably had the most effective interactions with Ponniah, with whom he shares a certain theatrical style.

De La Zilwa’s reputation for being a perfectionist is not unfounded. There were no weak links in the cast line up, with even relatively minor roles being played by accomplished actors Shannon Raymond and Ranmali Mirchandani (very memorable from Anna Weiss). Dominic Kellar played a convincing country stable owner, and even debutante Janice De Zoysa left me wondering why on earth she had not acted before. The horses were also no doubt handpicked for being strapping young lads with good height and physique.

It’s 4am, so I better wrap this up. The lighting was impressive, most notably in the “nude” scene with Wijesiriwardena and Abeysekara, which was artily tasteful as a result. (Even though they were’nt actually nude, you could readily believe they were). The costumes were appropriate, the horse costume design was good, but was not original, since the idea comes either directly from the script or from the original 70s production in London. The rotating stage, however, which was used only in one scene, I had not seen before, and I don’t remember it being in the script. This device helped the last scene of Act I become something extra special, where the choreography gave the scene an element of dance. It was during this scene that I decided that this production surpassed the one I had seen previously in England – a high quality university production with a professional RSC actor playing the lead.

One area where I did think there was room for improvement was the movement of the horses. Horses, especially the walk of horses and their head movements, can be mimicked far more realistically using the same costumes – the hooves and heads. Maybe some time alone with a full length mirror and and the new Zoo DVD may have something more to recommend it.

Overall, the production was well executed, well acted, well directed and well produced. I came away with my high expectations having been met. Congratulations to the Joint Effort Company.

Did I miss anything?


Comments»

1. ravana - October 19, 2007

I apologise for the unedited-ness of this post. I’ve tried about four times now to refine and add to, but wordpress is not letting me touch it for some reason.

2. ravana - October 19, 2007

Okay, so since I can’t edit the damn post I may as well slot this two cent coin in here:

One area where I did think there was room for improvement was the movement of the horses. The production I saw in England had far more realistic horse movements, especially to do with their walk of horses and their head movement. The same or similar costumes, headgear and hooves were used.

I think some time alone with a full length mirror and an Animal Farm video may not be as dodgy as it sounds. Either that, or a visit to the stables for horse observation is recommended.

3. Sandie - October 19, 2007

Bravo to all the cast and especially Steve on your opening night success! Wish I was there to claim a front row seat!
It must have been amazing!

4. ddm - October 19, 2007

ah tops. it’s aachchigeredde@hotmail.com

handy review btw, going on saturday.

5. Dirk - October 21, 2007

I saw the play on Friday and was rather disappointed with Rohan Ponniah’s performance. He relied too much on his voice to deliver his performance and after a while the soliloquies became tiring he very rarely connected with the other actors on stage or the audience for that matter. The first half of the show tended to drag, but it did pick up after the interval. (People who did see the show on opening night did think it was better!)
The boy playing Alan Strang was very good. And Suba who is rather new, was spot on . Dominic Kellar and Janice De Zoysa’s performance’s for me stood out perhaps because I’ve seen the others do what they do so often. Particularly Tracy Holsinge; her characterization has lost honesty. It’s a shame because she used to be brilliant.

6. Shock'n'Awe - October 22, 2007

“It was during this scene that I decided that this production surpassed the one I had seen previously in England – a high quality university production with a professional RSC actor playing the lead”

WOW!!! they surpassed the Warwick University Drama Society (WUDS) production… high praise indeed Ravana. Who would have thought that these Sri Lankan “actors” would even come close to what is essentially the amateur dramatics society of a British University?

I am doubly amazed given that the lead in the WUDS prodcution was “a professional RSC actor” – whose effort (I am sure) as ‘third courtier on the left’ in this years production of Henry the IV was riveting. Are you absolutely sure about this Ravana? Are you not letting your friendship with the cast members cloud/bias your judgement of the Sri Lankan production?

However, I shall take your word for it as you have shown yourself to be a man of taste and if you say that this production of Equus surpasses that of the WUDS then you have me sold. I shall purchase my tickets post haste.

7. ravana - October 22, 2007

Heh, heh. A bit touchy there, Shock’n’Awe. I seem to have hit a nerve.

It’s natural to compare a production with one you’ve seen before. Having only seen the WUDS production I couldn’t really compare it with anything else now, could I?

If you’re annoyed at the decision of a reviewer to compare one less than professional (in the true sense) production with another (which is what this is after all – The Joint Effort Company didn’t live off the earnings of Anna Weiss for 9 years), then I should reiterate that this is not a professional review either. Moreover, the context of it being on a blog, means that readers should expect such writing to be based on personal experiences, than reviews in the press meant for mass consumption. This production reminded me of the previous one (duh), it was better, and I mentioned it. C’est ca.

Further more, because you feel somehow that comparing WUDS to a production company that does a play once every nine years is somehow insulting to the latter, I should say the following:

Most major universities in the UK have many theatre societies. At Warwick Uni there are about 4 or 5 devoted to various different niches but the best people from each society also belong to WUDS, chiefly because WUDS is allowed one or two slots each term at the Warwick Arts Centre – the largest arts centre in the UK outside of the capital. Productions that are held in the Warwick Arts Centre are of high quality, and compete for audiences alongside international and national acts. Moreover, as a quick glance at the WUDS website will show, WUDS is run like a professional theatre company, submissions and all. The actors are generally either professional already, or intend to make it their career. WUDS runs several productions every term. Of course, you can’t be expected to know that, and if this was for publishing in a newspaper, I wouldn’t have said that. But this isn’t meant to be printed out at stuck on a wall. It’s a blog; it’s heavily coloured by personal experience; it’s meant to be read online, where if you are unsure about something (like the level of professionalism of WUDS), then you can effortlessly check it out online.

For these reasons, I reject the idea that comparing the two productions were in any way insulting to the current production. It is very much the opposite.

8. Shock'n'Awe - October 22, 2007

Very well Ravana checked out the site and this is what it said on its homepage no less (I have deleted one paragraph):

“WUDS -Warwick University Drama Society (WUDS) is devoted to producing excellence in student theatre. From Sophocles’ Antigone to Sarah Kane’s Blasted, our focus lies with published plays – encouraging students to take such works and do exactly what they want with them. We run workshops, organise regular socials and always have at least one play in production. This society is run for students by students – step up and get involved.”

From what I gather (and correct me if I’m wrong) WUDS productions are for students by students… Thereby regardless of your claim (which I’m sure is valid) of professionalism in WUDS theatre, a comparison between a student production (as you don’t need to be a professional actor to take part) and that of a cast which has a collective theatre experience comparable to any professional actor (RSC or otherwise) can be considered an insult n’est pas?

BTW, I’m sure judging by the tone of this comment you would (hopefully) realise that I am not who you initially thought I was.

9. ravana - October 22, 2007

Please be assured that I have no idea who you are. It was purely the instensity of your first comment that led me to the conclusion that I had touched a nerve.

“a comparison between a student production (as you don’t need to be a professional actor to take part) and that of a cast which has a collective theatre experience comparable to any professional actor (RSC or otherwise) can be considered an insult n’est pas?”

I disagree. Firstly, my intention was not to compare an entire cast’s collective experience to that of one actor. What’s the logic in that? My intention, instead, was to convey something of the degree of professionalism (for better or worse) of the production I was comparing with.

Secondly, just the fact that WUDS consists of students and the Joint Effort Company production consists of older actors (except for Subha Wijesiriwardena and Hiran Abeysekara), does not mean anything in itself. Many of the WUDS students are students of Theatre Studies, which is a degree programme available at Warwick, which should be an indication of how seriously they take theatre. They are also prolific – many of them are involved in one or more productions every term, and therefore, no conclusion can be drawn as to whether older actors who do productions less frequently have more experience.

10. Shock'n'Awe - October 22, 2007

“Please be assured that I have no idea who you are. It was purely the instensity of your first comment that led me to the conclusion that I had touched a nerve.”

Good. No nerve touched.

“I disagree. Firstly, my intention was not to compare an entire cast’s collective experience to that of one actor. What’s the logic in that? My intention, instead, was to convey something of the degree of professionalism (for better or worse) of the production I was comparing with.”

Nowhere did I compare the SL cast with just one actor, that’s just silly (I’m sorry you read it that way) the point I was merely trying to make was that quite of few of the SL cast have had plenty of experience in theatre (say 10+ years) in professional productions and some with international acting/directing experience (Tracy H, Shanaka A, Rohan P to name a few) akin to many professional actors whether RSC or otherwise.

“Secondly, just the fact that WUDS consists of students and the Joint Effort Company production consists of older actors (except for Subha Wijesiriwardena and Hiran Abeysekara), does not mean anything in itself.”

Agree, but then again I never said anything about older actors vs. student actors, that’s a point you’ve brought up all on your own. I said ‘theatre experience’ which as you should know has nothing to do with age.

“Many of the WUDS students are students of Theatre Studies, which is a degree programme available at Warwick”

That is something only you and other Warwick alums can verify… nowhere on the WUDS website is that claim made.

“which should be an indication of how seriously they take theatre.”

Errr… so what does it matter that WUDS members are theatre studies majors? Our local schools have long tradition of theatre culminating in the Shakespeare drama comp. They take their theatre very seriously indeed with plenty of time and money spent on props, costumes et al. Yet would you be comfortable comparing a school production of Equus to this one?

“They are also prolific – many of them are involved in one or more productions every term, and therefore, no conclusion can be drawn as to whether older actors who do productions less frequently have more experience.”

The degree of professionalism on the part of the WUDS can be debated ad nauseum, a simple skim through their website (as suggested by you) demonstrates that any student can (and is encouraged to) take part in productions (backstage or onstage) – leaving a not insignificant variability in the overall quality of a WUDS production… or are they operating some cartel where only theatre studies majors can take lead roles and the plebs are confined to non speaking roles like “stand in for third policeman”?

Regardless of how many productions a typical WUDS member takes part in; the fact is that they are still students and alas (unlike our university students) have on average of three years to get their theatres kicks in and it’s reasonable to suggest that not all of them would take part in every production. Many of the actors in the SL production have far more theatrical experience, both on stage, back stage, international and local) than that.

With apologies to those not mentioned (for there are a fair few SL actors of immense talent and true presence both in English and Sinhala theatre), my point is that Tracy H, Shanaka A (who are amongst the closest to professional actors as is possible in SL English language theatre) and Rohan P would understandably feel a tad aggrieved by your branding of their production superior to that of a student production, regardless of your intention, given their collective experience in theatre, much in the same way that a RADA trained actress would feel slighted if her performance were declared better than that of a student of theatre studies.

Just saying…

Anyway it does sound as if you are giving a two thumbs up to this production and I shall take take your post (in its entirety) as a token of your appreciation for excellent Sri Lankan theatre. I shall be watching Equus this week and look forward to it very much.

11. Electra - October 22, 2007

Shock ‘n’ Awe; you are being pedantic. It should be completely obvious to anyone that an intstitution like WUDS runs professionally. Students, or not, they are people with educational qualifications, experience and careers in theatre and its related areas of study. And it makes it even more obvious when Ravana mentions that an RSC actor was involved; isn’t it highly unlikely that an actor from the RSC would partake in anything that isn’t guaranteed to garner good reviews from critics and audiences alike? The mere fact that an RSC actor was involved raises the professionalism of WUDS immediately. Besides, WUDS is internationally renowned for their productions anyway, even without well known actors that frequently take their stage.

It is common sense that theatre is very difficult to handle in SL; we have to scrounge for money, beg for sponsorships and press publicity, and often deal with stubborn sponsors, careless media and thus, bad publicity. On top of that, actors have little opportunity for any real local tranining or education with relation to theatre here. You learn things mostly from the directors you work with, and the rest, you just have to teach yourself. To be compared favourably to a production in a country where theatre is venerated, actors have almost the best paid jobs, actor training is abundantly available, and money is freely distributed for theatre efforts is a real accomplishment.

12. ravana - October 22, 2007

I know many of the actors in the production personally, and the fact that they were aggrieved by the comparison is not news to me.

Apart from Tracy Holsinger who teaches Speech and Drama and almost always has at least one production on the boil, none of the other actors in this production are as involved in theatre as a typical WUDS member. (Rohan Ponniah is acting after how long? To Shanaka Amarasinghe theatre is only part of a list of priorities that include his law career, his radio sports show, his rugby and his journalism).

This contrasts with the degree of devotion to performance of the WUDS crowd. Of the seven people in the only production I was involved with at uni – and that too was one of the smaller theatre groups (Freshblood – not the more professional WUDS) the following 6 are now all professional theatre people, except for Tom Cocklin (who Shanaka Amarasinghe has actually met, incidentally, on a train back from a play at Stratford-upon-Avon, and who I just discovered had died tragically at the age of 25. I’m a bit shocked, to be honest – he was the most promising).

I was the eighth, and the least talented and devoted member of the comedy revue we did together, being an Economics student to boot.

I’m giving these as an example of the type of person that was involved seriously in theatre at Warwick. I can’t remember any of the full names of the people in the Equus production, otherwise I would google them. It was their whole life, not part of it, or something to do occasionally. And I know this because I knew them well at one stage, just as I know many of the people in this cast. Trust me, when I compared the two productions, it WAS MOST CERTAINLY A COMPLIMENT, AND A HEAVY ONE AT THAT.

Tom Cocklin: http://www.btsc.homestead.com/TomCocklin.html

Tom Price: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Price_(actor)

Ciaran Murtagh: http://www.blacksheepcomedy.co.uk/v2/

Matt Holt: http://www.comedycv.co.uk/mattholt/index.htm

Alexis Dubus: http://www.alexisdubus.com/cv_acting.htm

Rohan Archarya: http://www.fringereport.com/int0211rohan.shtml

I guess Anna was an exception cos she studied physics, not a humanities subject, and didn’t want to perform for a career. Anna always wanted to be a presenter on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, and it looks like she’s doing something like it:

Anna Starkey: http://www.outofyourmindproductions.com/Anna%20Starkey.html

13. Colombo theatre keeps getting better « Cerno - November 1, 2007

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