In student drama, next week is a big one, with the St Andrews premiere of Equus, Peter Shaffer’s haunting drama on what is literally our town’s biggest stage, the Byre Theatre. The play, a startling, almost supernatural story of a boy who suddenly blinds six horses in a stable, and the combination of psychological factors that got him there, shows on the 13th and 14th of October. Owl Eyes interviewed the director, Alexander Gillespie, to learn about what it’s like at the helm of this grand play.
Owl Eyes: You’ve [directed] Mary Queen of Scots, Egregore, your own play Patriots, and now Equus. Why is this your next play?
Alexander Gillespie: Mary Queen of Scots had always been a great, big cast, and that is the same in Equus, in that sense that it is two main characters, plus everyone else. For me, sequentially, Equus was going back to that, going back to the big style plays that I like doing. I like plays with big casts. It’s fun, and there’s lots of moving parts. In recent theatre there are a lot of smaller plays. Part of that is because people want their plays to get put on. Not just in St Andrews, but in the wider theatre world it is cheaper to do a play with two actors than a play with thirteen actors. So the only people that get to write thirteen person plays are people who are already fairly successful. You don’t normally go in with a thirteen-member cast on your first play. Because of that, it’s something grander, something inherently more theatrical. Small casts are great, small casts can very clearly convey a specific vision, but larger casts, for me, are the attraction: having lots of different parts building into something. For specifically Equus, I’ve been reading this play for the last six or seven years, and I’ve always wanted to put it on. It’s big, and violent, and stupid, and wonderful, and heart-breaking. It’s something everyone should see once. So I’m happy to put it on here.
OE: How are you planning to utilize your space?. What should we expect in terms of production elements: set and lights, etc.?
AG: Semi-ironically, being a dick-head, we’re quite minimalistic. The Byre is a really great space, and in theory, you can do some really great sets there. You had The Importance of Being Earnest, and you had Hamlet, even The Normal Heart, which was, again, minimalistic, still had a back wall. You looked at it and went, “Ah, that was impressively built.”
We’re getting some boxes and some crates. Aesthetically, we stripped everything back, because the play is about people acting through their imagination. Because the play is about imagination, and about memory, and how we treat memory, the second you make it a real place, a real doctor’s office, as soon as you make it any of those things, the illusion is killed. It becomes naturalistic. It becomes a real thing. And then everything from that becomes more silly. There is a wooden diamond in the middle, there are benches around that. Sitting on blocks around the edge, the characters are constantly on stage. If you do that, the stage can be anything. But once you start making it something, the possibilities stop being endless, and start being very limited. Similarly, with the horses, they are in no way meant to look like actual horses. They are meant to look like people wearing horrendous, metallic horse heads. Because I want to invoke other things, too, because it’s not real. It’s something metaphorical.
OE: You touched on the horses just now. There is a strong movement element to Equus. Tell me about managing that as a director, dealing with actors and designing that element of the play.
AG: Really, there are two degrees, in that there are the actors and then there are the horses, the equine actors. For every actor, movement is incredibly important. It defines their characters. For examples, one of my actresses is brilliant, but occasionally tends to dance with her feet, which she really shouldn’t do. She’ll be pirouetting and stuff, when she’s meant to be angry. But angry people don’t pirouette.
Jared, one of our leads, for him there’s a before and after. Before the blinding and after the blinding (of six horses with a metal spike). And after the blinding, he should always move very jaggedly. He is always tense, he should never let go of that tension. And that needs to be kept in the movement. While before, we need to have a sense of difference. He’s a bit more fluid. He’s a bit more naturally in his own body. But if you compare that to the horses, the movement is a lot more choreographed, because they are this kind of quasi-religious, quasi-choral figure. So we brought in Alyssa Muzyk, formerly of the Blue Angels, who’s done a lot ballet and jazz training. She was on the team which won the advance Jazz world championships last year. She’s helped us a lot with that movement, especially with the horses. In the script, at the beginning of Act Two, Alan mentions to Dysart how he’s noticed that horses stand like ballet-dancers, up on one foot. That’s what we’re really trying to bring across, this grace and power in the movement. There’s a lot of big choreography. There’s a lot of scary images we want to create, because it’s St Andrews and we don’t do that often. We want to scare the fuck out of people.
OE: Equus is forty years old now, plus. In what ways is it still relevant?
AG: In order to say how it’s still relevant, I need to draw your attention to the way in which it isn’t. Even in the 70’s, the language was very theatrical It doesn’t sound like real people are talking. Which is fine, but here’s the thing: it also has a very outdated sense of psychiatry. Shaffer was writing at this time when, I think it was R.D Laing, was suggesting that mentally ill people aren’t really mentally ill, everyone else is. The mentally ill can see the world as it is. The end product of that was Equus. Shaffer to some extent denies this. but the play could be easily taken, depending on your direction, as an indictment of modern psychiatry.
With that said, what it is still relevant in is it’s spectacle, in it’s “theatre” in the purest sense. It takes an idea, and it runs with it as far as possible. It explodes it and it makes a show where horses are on stage and gods are on stage and blindings happen and all this stuff, and it goes right back to the origins of theatre. It evolves it to the modern era. The play is a double tragedy: you have the tragedy of Alan Strang, the boy who blinds six horses, and you have the tragedy of Dr. Martin Dysart, the man who lost himself to the world, who became just another face in the sea. He hates this. I think that’s still relevant. At the core of the play, that’s what the duality is about. It’s about a man who has lost himself to passion and a man who has lost himself from passion. At the end, one of these tragedies comes to conclusion, you get catharsis for one of these tragedies. But we don’t for the other. And that’s very haunting. And I think that’s why it’s relevant. Because it’s still powerful.