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?