Tag Archives: Equus by Peter Shaffer

Dionysos Bringer of Chaos, Agent for Change

When I was a young actor I was fascinated by the character of Dionysos , the Greek god of wine, madness, sex and death… Oh, and theatre itself. So I decided to write myself a one man show which I performed in the late seventies/ early eighties. The piece was called Dionysos Re-membered about a young man who believed himself to be the reincarnation of the God, the premise being that he had invited the audience to announce his new coming on the world only to be disillusioned and destroyed by the audience’s lack of belief in his assertion. On the one hand it was an imaginary look at a disturbed young man whose illusion crumbles and on the other a look at how we accommodate the wonder and spirit in our lives. It was quite funny in part, and very strange and intense. Scan 142420000I had recently been in a production of Equus by Peter Shaffer and was quite depressed by the idea that I felt the power of the boy was ultimately devalued  at the end, and wanted to address the balance a little. What I mean there is that the boy’s fantasy of riding an Equine God was not ultimately celebrated enough in the play, even though the psychiatrist who investigates is torn about having to ‘cure’ the boy of his fantasy in order that he might be happier and fit more snugly into society. I am not sure I feel now that Shaffer was so conciliatory to his West End audience, but I did then.

The lure of Dionysos was at the time largely based on the feeling that he represented sexual abandon as a route for social change; something very prevalent in the attitudes of young, particularly gay people, at the time. At the time for instance, very few young people would have supported the idea of marriage, gay or straight, considering it a repressive institution and part of the World of Pentheus.

Thematically I suppose in my piece I was fascinated by exploring the invisible and really giving it its value and not letting the audience believe necessarily that the conventional materialistic way was the only way to experience and have success in the world; that there was stuff going on on a deeper level that we could be aware of if we wanted to be, stuff that would enrich our lives ( and theatre also). It is not surprising that I eventually ended up teaching Michael Chekhov technique which supports and encourages this world view.

So I have always been interested in doing The Bacchae, originally written by Euripides, which tells of Dionysos’ return to Thebes with his wild women to exact his terrible revenge on the materialistic city where he was born but I never found a version of it that satisfied me. I would often pick up translations/versions of The Bacchae and other Greek plays, read a page and then return it to the shelf. I cannot tell you the number of times I have done that. And then I tried to write a version of my own but somehow I never got it finished. It was not until I found the David Greig version that I thought it was time to meet the play.

When you meet Greig’s version you meet the clash of the elements; of wildness and materialism; of convention and chaos; of the intellect and the emotions. The writing is incredibly powerful ; modern and tribal at the same time; on the one hand , poetic and forceful constantly moving forward as the irreconcilable forces of unbridled sexuality , creativity and wildness clash with the forces of order, harshness and repression; on the other, modern, accessible and humorous as Dionysos lures his macho cousin Pentheus to his doom, asking us all sorts of questions about gender and stereotype.

The academic and practitioner Oliver Taplin reminds us that Greek Drama always asks big questions about society; questions that the plays explore in ruthless depth. It shows us what happens when we make bad choices in dilemmas which are sometimes irreconcilable, in unrelenting detail. When I was young I believed, much as I liked the grandeur of these plays, that the horrors were overblown. Now I know such horrors exist for many of the world’s peoples. In fact there are Greek tragedies in every small town. The plays also suggest, there is no ‘free lunch’; there are consequences for everything we do. Taplin also talks about polarities which exist starkly and uncompromising in Greek Drama; love and duty; order and chaos; revenge and acceptance; maleness and femaleness. Polarities are a big plank of Michael Chekhov’s shaping of composition, so in a play, each character has a relationship to certain polarities within a piece, and perhaps that is where his concept was born, in the Theatre of the Greeks.

The play warns us that ignoring the elemental rawness of our lives, of ignoring creativity and having too formal boundaries can only result in doom. That the very determination to set a society in stone prepares it for an inevitable earthquake. It reminds me a lot of the environmental issues surrounding us right now… Are the Maenads not like an avenging Nature ripping the head and limbs from the body of the King of civilisation? It reminds me of the whole clash of experience, intellectual versus instinctive, made much of in Greig’s translation, and something very dear to my heart as a champion of the experiential. But perhaps the trick of working on this play with my students at NUI Galway  might be to suggest all these issues but maintain an openness. Certainly for the time being.

It’s exciting.

Considering the workshop Personal Atmosphere and Gesture

This is all a bit technical, and mainly for Chekkies, sorry, that is my name for people into Michael Chekhov technique , but I was thinking about preparing my weekend workshop for October in Galway and the relationship between personal atmosphere and psychological gesture, or intention These are the two principal two tools which we are going to work with in this workshop.

In my training, Lenard Petit spoke eloquently about the desire for opposites in our character work, polarities if you like, and of course if we consider for a second how we operate as people , in ‘real life”, with any given situation , opposing forces pull us this way and that all the time. We feel this happen very strongly – a constant battle. It is this tugging back and forth which gives us a strong part of our personal dynamic and the way in which we ( or the character) might behave. In Lessons for Professional Actors, Chekhov speaks of how we negotiate atmosphere in our everyday lives, in every venue and every situation, every time a new person comes into the room or we move from one space to another –  the general atmosphere changes. Personal atmosphere is quite different to this. Literally it can be a smell, a karma, some aura that the individual person carries around which evokes a response from others . Where might this personal atmosphere come from? Well it might come from the person’s appearance, their smell, ( literally), their past, their expectations, their very pores…. It would be something that their acquaintances and friends would be aware of, and would be more than simply a response to how the character behaves. It is an essence.

One of the students I was teaching at The LIR asked once, ‘Are the centre and the personal atmosphere connected? Does the centre exude the personal atmosphere?’ This was an intriguing thought, but what occurred to me is that sometimes a personal atmosphere just IS. I think it has a much more powerful effect on others than the centre of the character. It is sometimes something others can even put a name to.’ That person is bitter ‘, ‘the person oozes confidence’

A personal atmosphere need not be there all the time but can be evoked in certain situations. Think of yourself when you are in particular situations and suddenly there is a certain oxygen around one which provokes a particular response, as if you are speaking from some kind of fog . Job interviews would be a prime situation for me. At other times though, that personal atmosphere is not there. In Equus , the play we are working with , Dysart the psychiatrist starts off for me with a personal atmosphere which might be translated realistically as his professional demeanour . It’s a sharp clean incisive personal atmosphere, even though his own life is sterile and numb. He perhaps lets this go in scenes in which he is not analysing and then his personal atmosphere might be quite different. As the play progresses, a way to go with the character might be that his sharp clean incisive personal atmosphere starts to become more emotional, punctured  and confused as he becomes fonder of Alan, more bound up in his fate,, and an atmosphere develops for him which is different ,one it might literally be harder to see through.

But what might be his overall psychological gesture, the other tool we will be using on the weekend? Perhaps it is to destroy everything, to tear everything apart or at least push away and behind in order to deal with his personal disappointments. I think a major polarity in Equus felt by many of the characters is that of hope and disappointment. there is a palpable  expectation or ideal of how they wanted things to be or how they feel they ought to be, against how things have actually turned out. leaving a sense of being lost. This sense of ‘lostness’ envelopes many of the characters.

Another thing that is interesting are those characters whose psychological gesture might come out of a personal atmosphere , Let’s leave Equus and take the example of Miss Bates in Emma by Jane Austen, the silly plain woman  who cannot stop talking. She can be quite an irritating character who over projects and over involves herself. but perhaps she has an atmosphere around her of inadequacy, and failure, and she is desperately trying to claw on to her world and the other people in it, to prove her worth, her value. She tries to engulf them with prattle and pull them towards her, from within a personal atmosphere of  loneliness. I am not saying this is the only way to play Miss Bates, but it gives us an interesting  and specific depth..

Looking forward to the workshop .There are still three places. 3 – 5 th October Galway City. Check the details on this blog – upcoming courses!

Equus – a horse for a course.

Alan struggles to explain. Manchester 1977

Alan struggles to explain. Manchester 1977

My second job as a young professional actor was playing Alan Strang, the boy in Equus by Peter Shaffer. Manchester. At that time it was the part every young actor wanted as the play had just been released to repertory companies, when there was a repertory system in the UK. (the subject of another blogpost to come). Many companies were doing the play, and Daniel Day Lewis was playing it in Bristol when I was doing it in Manchester. Cleverly and more recently, Daniel Radcliffe used the role as a stepping stone away from the Teenage Magician. Alan, the disturbed and insular boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike and is being examined by a psychiatrist as to what might have led him to do this, was an ideal part for me, as I found the pain and isolation of the young man and his secret repressed life very easy to access. [Make of that what you will!]

The staging of the play with its actors on metal hooves and wearing giant wire horse shaped heads was an extraordinary concept forty years prior to the more sophisticated War Horse, and that, along with its dramatic exploration of the story through therapy was extremely unusual and exciting.

Something the play achieved which the film could not, was to make for a perfect balance between the boy’s mythological wonder and the psychiatrist’s necessity to make Alan’s life more mundane and less imaginative. In the play we, the audience, experienced the splendour and power of his secret horse riding through the physical and visual poetry of the final minutes of act one, astride one of the giant ‘horses’ , whereas in the film we saw him riding like the disturbed boy he was, through a rubbish tip. In the film there was not enough polarity of experience between the boy and the psychiatrist (played by Peter Firth and Richard Burton) which for me destroyed the great moral question of how and when to civilise behaviour and yet retain some of the extraordinary passion and wonder the boy seemed to possess.

Some people attacked the play as too simplistic, as we discover that the final trigger to Alan’s act was a culmination of first discovering his reactionary father at a porn film, then being taken back to the revered stables, under the eyes of his godlike steeds, to have sex with an older lonely young woman, and being unable to have sex with her because he could not get an erection. When written baldly like that it does sound a bit unlikely. However, there is something about the underlying power of this play which belies any scepticism one might have. It is for me full with an organic and mythic truth.

This is why I am using the play for exercises in my next Intermediate Chekhov weekend here in Galway from The evening of October 3rd , then two full days over the weekend of October 4th and 5th. You need to have some experience with the Chekhov technique, and our main focus will be working with just two aspects of the work, personal atmosphere and psychological gesture and using them for short scenes on the Sunday. I chose these two aspects, and may add another, because on the bare space the characters inhabit as described in the text, they need to radiate a strong personal atmosphere which is almost for me bigger than the character, or they just disappear and become trivialised. Their personal atmosphere may be in some case how they want to appear, their armour, their persona and so they send that out loud and strong. Equus for me is like a bloody battle between the characters as they struggle to justify themselves in the wake of this grisly story, rather than why a boy does such a thing…. Anyway …

Check out the upcoming courses page for details or just email coretheatrecollege@gmail.com to register interest and find out how to pay a deposit. It is €100 for the weekend. If you need to know more about my work as teacher and director, it’s all on this blog!