Horseplay on Princes Street

img_20180731_0002.jpgStaging Equus in Edinburgh

We hear so much these days about poor mental health and how there appears to be a plague of it presenting with epidemic proportions, especially among the young.  There have always been dramas that focused on psychology and the sometimes horrendous consequences of mental malfunctioning. Of all the modern texts that deal with cerebral sickness, Equus is by far the most theatrical.  Staging it at the world’s premier arts festival was both stressful and exhilarating.

Then in the morning, I put away my books on the cultural shelf, close up the Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus, touch my reproduction statue of Dionysus for luck – and go off to hospital to treat him for insanity.[1]

So says Martin Dysart towards the end of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 stage work. It is one of the final hammer blows delivered to the thematic mettle of this thoroughbred play.  Dysart is the overworked psychiatrist charged with treating Alan Strang, a teenage boy convicted of blinding six horses with a hoof spike.

The play charts Dysart’s journey that, from the word go, is a double-edged sword, for as he metaphorically applies his psychological scalpel to Alan, he makes deep cuts into his own psyche.  That component is just one of the many wheals that Shaffer delivers in this truly (unlike many dramas) theatrical work.

Nugget and Alan flippedAlan is a very unsettled young man and his troubles are tied up with the reins, bridles and straps of indoctrination, a desire to experience the divine, and a crippling sense of self-worth. Just when things look as if they are about to improve for him, it all goes terribly, terribly wrong.

Too old to be a modern classic, too young to be vaunted as a paragon of its period, it is mainly out to grass these days and the psychology on which it is based has been bad-mouthed in reviews of more recent revivals, but there are aspects of this play that may strike useful chords with contemporary sufferers – especially young adults. Alan’s pitiful self-worth is spurred by his perception of how he is perceived. For play that preceded social media by thirty years, it almost seems prophetic.

Producing Equus and cantering it up to Edinburgh generated glorious memories, but there are saddlebags of recollections of a challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable, adventure.

An unstable production

The play was just fifteen years of age when my second small theatre company took the tasty, but often poisonous, bit between its naive teeth and set off for the Edinburgh International Festival in August 1988.

Unstable Productions was the foal of Spare Parts Theatre sired by Fulwood Drama Workshop, and the pun in the company name was every bit intended for a group producing a disturbing play featuring horses in an outhouse.  The most reluctant member of the team, in fact the only reluctant person, was your scribe who was producer/director.

The 1988 Fringe poster

We had staged the show a year earlier in an ideal venue – the converted barn of Worden Hall in Leyland, Lancashire. The production was highly praised, and rightly so, for the cast executed superbly pitched performances, but Edinburgh was a different prospect.  The annual arts festival is the biggest in the world and the fringe is internationally renowned. Artists and audience come from all arcs of the globe and intrepid amateurs can find themselves alongside famous professionals, pitching for the same public and applauded, or otherwise, by highly discerning punters.

Performances begin at breakfast and continue around the clock, ending only an hour or two before they start again the next day. This year the Fringe boasts 3500 shows across 300 venues. In 1988 there were 913 shows presented by 473 companies in 160 venues across the city.

The competition to attract spectators is immense and it is by no means uncommon to find audience numbers in single figures and bank accounts in thousands – but on the wrong side of the balance sheet. A producer cannot overlook that risk.

Our success in Leyland was also nearly our undoing. It is so often the case with creative groups, that acclamation seeds artistic differences and working relationships suffer.  Myself as director, and the actor playing Alan, collided over approaches to the rehearsal of plays sandwiched between the two Equus productions and the previously fruitful process was derailed.  We were too heavily committed to cancel, and so there was a certain amount of discomfort smouldering under the final phase of preparations and the week at the Fringe.

Fortunately, professionalism prevailed and the public remained ignorant, rightfully blinded by pristine portrayals. It was almost certainly a case of equal fault, fuelled by each of us languishing in the appreciation we received for the original production and forgetting that you are only ever as good as your next performance. Lessons were learned that have never been forgotten.


The Unstable Productions Equus cast.  Neil Hewertson, Ian Doyle, Malcolm Sim, Craig Tillotson   Middle row: Pete Hartley, Andrew Hobbs  Front row: Maria Malley, Amanda Woodcroft, Ruth Livesley, Suzy O’Donnel, Sue Harris. (Not pictured: Janet Hindmarsh, Charlotte Hatton and Eliz Hemus)

Wild horses

Just how do you present convincing horses on stage?  Well that question was answered admirably more recently by Marianne Elliott’s National Theatre War Horse production but Shaffer and the original National Theatre Equus company had solved the problem thirty years earlier in an equally effective, and even more blatantly human, way. John Dexter’s production along with Claude Chagrin’s movement and John Napier’s design realised the very specific concepts laid down in Shaffer’s text in an enchanting style.  In fact, the wondrous War Horse techniques, although devised independently, look like evolutions of some of the methods used in Equus.

Any literalism which could suggest the cosy familiarity of a domestic animal – or worse, a pantomime horse – should be avoided[2]

IMG_20180803_0002The animals are created entirely by the physicality of the actors – walking upright on only two legs. When Alan rides he is carried on the upper back (or in our case, shoulders) of the horse actor.  It is the Equus mask that is the lynchpin. Again, pre-empting War Horse puppets, Shaffer prescribes that the horse heads should reveal, not conceal, the actor beneath.  Hence he hits at the heart of theatricality by plainly making the artifice into the reality.

That’s what theatricality means: of course it’s not for real.[3]

IMG_20180731_0003The described structure sounds as if it shouldn’t work, but with talented physical actors it works terrifically. We had one of the most talented physical performers of my acquaintance playing Nugget the principal horse: Andrew Hobbs. When the physicality is overlaid with apposite lighting and the numinous Equus Noise – choric humming, thumping and stamping – total theatre triumphs.

Equus in the original is a dated text, partly because Alan is initially fixated on television clichés and those particular ones are long gone. A more recent revival used an updated text to allow Daniel Radcliffe to slough off his wizard’s cloak – and everything else.  Christianity also features strongly via Alan’s parents, and those sensibilities are not as commonplace today and hence the play may seem somewhat anachronistic in certain details, but it hasn’t lost its relevance.  Religions still infect some young minds, young people are still confused by their emerging psychology, and many are troubled by new gods – their digital doubles, the perceived expectations of virtual peers and the need to meet them.  For anyone contemplating a production of Equus, it might be safest to stage it as a period piece, but however it is placed, it’s ancient pedigree will gallop through.

Our production was a great success.  We were fortunate in securing a very central venue (Theatre West End as operated by Imperial College Union) in Princes Street and an optimum time slot: 9.30pm. We were also the only Equus in town. The previous year had seen three competing with each other. The play still had a certain cachet and we drew full houses on all but one night – when the fireworks display imbibed thousands into the streets and added an interesting audible extra to our show.  Despite high capacity sales we only just broke even on the venture and that was only achieved by the cast agreeing to treat the week as a holiday, pay for the accommodation, and take no fees.

We did our share of legwork and leafleting, but in essence we got lucky.  We knew of other groups that lost thousands of pounds, and thirty years on that figure can be much higher.

Was it worth it?  Without doubt. The experience of visiting the Fringe is unique and staging a performance there amid such a tsunami of culture seekers generated a very special sensation. It was immensely satisfying to attract an appreciative public to watch a superb cast perform a great play.

Equus review
The Lancashire Evening Post review of our first Equus production a year earlier



The whole experience of being at the Fringe and the difficulties and joys of wrestling the show into life had a long and pervasive influence on my subsequent theatre practice.

IMG_20180803_0001One of the great pleasures of performing at the Fringe is the opportunity it offers to see other work. I saw a magnificent one-man performance of Don Quixotte by the French actor Jacques Bourgaux that was only exorcised from my consciousness by producing and performing in Drinking with Don Quixote some twenty-two years later.

In addition to the conflicts outlined above there was another profoundly negative experience that remained with me. My chief theatrical guru is Keith Jonstone who wrote the seminal drama teaching work Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.  The entire basis of my teaching was founded on Johnstone’s ideas and the cast of Equus had been trained in them. One of the Equus cast and I went to see Theatresports an improvisation comedy based on Johnstone’s concepts and we also signed up for an improvisation workshop run by members of the team.

I still have a letter of complaint written in our lodgings in Edinburgh, but never posted.

The group leader (ironically called Alan) made great stock out of the fact he had studied under Johnstone himself and hence claimed the creative high ground – something which goes entirely against Johnstone’s philosophy.  That may have put me slightly on edge and unfortunately when Alan selected me for interaction I instinctively responded in a manner that immediately revealed I was very much at home with the ideas that he thought were known only to him. For the remainder of the three-hour session I became his victim. He tore into everything I did, frequently humiliating me in front of the group, which is the complete antithesis of what Johnstone preaches.  It hurt, but I never forgot his approach, and never replicated it.

Drama cover DH

Drama: what it is and how to do it



The rehearsal photographs featured were taken by Malcolm Smith.


[1] Shaffer, Equus, Scene 25.

[2] Shaffer’s stage direction in the introduction to the published edition of Equus

[3] Sir Peter Brook in an interview with Sir Richard Eyre for the BBC series Changing Stages

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