Rohan Ponniah and Steve de la Zilwa talk to Richard Simon about their new production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which opened at the British School Auditorium on 18 October.
Inside the Equus command centre, housed in a vast Victorian mansion overlooking Kynsey Road, the atmosphere is relaxed and confident. Director Steve de la Zilwa tinkers with production notes at his computer keyboard, occasionally rising to pour himself some wine or hand round the Cambozola, a newfangled gourmet cheese he describes as ‘just like Camembert, only with a blue vein.’ Lead actor Rohan Ponniah, best known to Sri Lankans for his TV current-affairs programme, Benchmark, is doing what he loves doing best, talking. Pausing only to sip from the oft-replenished glass of vodka and tonic at his elbow, he flits with practised agility from topic to topic, equally at home with high philosophy and low gossip. He’s a nightmare to interview because he won’t keep to the point long enough to finish a sentence, but he’s a compelling listen all the same. De la Zilwa lets his leading man do most of the talking; the director’s contribution to the interview is barely more than a few words, delivered in a tone that brooks no argument. The suggestion that adolescents and young adults are sexually more precocious now than their parents were a generation ago provokes a typically derisive snort.
‘Nonsense! People were very promiscuous in the Seventies!’
You feel it would be unwise to contradict him.
Sex, of course, is very much on the agenda here. Equus is a play by Peter Shaffer about a disturbed adolescent, and we all know just what it is that disturbs adolescents. The script contains a celebrated nude scene between said adolescent, a horse-obsessed teenager named Alan Strang, and a fellow stablehand named Jill. The scene aroused a good deal of prudish interest during the 1978 Colombo production, which featured a nymph named Teresa de Kretzer, some low lighting and a trompe l’oeil bodystocking. This time round, the role of Jill is played by Subha Wijesiriwardena, an intelligent and outspoken young actress who would not, you suspect, balk at the challenge of playing the scene as originally scripted. It sounds like a good place to start the interview.
So is Subha going to be getting her kit off for the big scene?
Steve de la Zilwa (making it plain he considers the question impertinent) That’s the impression… the illusion that we will create. We can’t really do it, though; we’ll be closed down before we open.
So what will we see, then?
SdelZ It’s amazing what you can do with lighting and stagecraft. But what you see will be one hundred percent decent and legal, for sure.
Rohan Ponniah We live in far more conservative times now. You could get away with a lot more in the Seventies. That’s one thing that has struck me hard about the play – I mean, good lord, that whole scene in the stable, the dialogue – I mean, it’s absolutely brutal, in-your-face…
And very embarrassing if not performed with conviction.
RP True. Very true. But I think Hiran (Abeysekera, who plays Alan Strang) is well up to it.
You know, ’73 in London, ’78 here… you didn’t think it was going to be shocking. We had the Censor Board coming in, back in ’78 – we’d already sold tickets by the time we had them in, and at first they said ‘no’. Can you imagine? It would have been a disaster. But luckily we had the Reverends Baldwin Daniel and Lionel Pieris –
SdelZ In their cassocks…
RP In their cassocks, coming to the YWCA at Union Place and cheering wildly all the way through the play. Two liberal men of the cloth.
SdelZ But Rohan, I don’t think there was any problem. The censors weren’t bothered by the religious stuff.
It was the girl in the bodystocking they were worried about?
RP Though nowadays you see far more revealing outfits on television. The thing is, you didn’t have all this Christian fundamentalism back in the 1970s. Sri Lanka was a far more advanced, liberated society than it is now. I was telling Steve the other day, this time we might get someone from some fundamentalist ‘church’, might even be a fairly literate person – a few educated people have gone down that route, after all – who’ll come to see Equus and misunderstand the whole thing, and get offended, and try to make trouble.
But is this really a play that offends Christian sensibilities? Sure, Alan Strang’s mental illness has caused him to create his own religion, but the playwright isn’t seriously proposing Alan’s Equus faith as some blasphemous alternative to Christianity. It’s just somebody practising their own private religion. Watching it should be no more offensive to a Christian than attending a Buddhist pirith ceremony or a Hindu pooja. But I suppose some born-again types are offended by such things…
SdelZ I don’t know about that, but back in 1978 Equus didn’t offend. It didn’t offend anybody.
RP Well, we didn’t have that fundamentalism around. It was very middle-class in those days: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Youth for Christ. Not the kind of mass-market fundamentalism you get nowadays.
In Equus, childhood religious trauma and adolescent sexuality form the mainspring of the plot, commingling in the character of the stableboy Alan Strang to generate a potent psychopathology. Stricken with despair and frustration, Alan has blinded six of his employer’s horses with a hoof-pick. It is up to Rohan Ponniah’s character, Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist troubled by priest-like ‘doubts’, to salvage him, to repair the traumatic damage and turn him into a ‘productive member of society’.
Alan is a typical product of the climate of the sexual repression that persisted in the West until the 1960s and still permeates many cultures around the world, but it seems to this writer that repressed adolescents like him are somewhat out of fashion now, not only in the West but even in Sri Lanka – at least among the educated, cosmopolitan, well-off folk who will be sitting in the audience when Equus opens on the eighteenth. I put it to Ponniah that repression ain’t what it used to be, that there are fewer Alan Strangs to be found nowadays.
RP Alan is an extreme case. Dysart keeps saying that, over and over again, ‘The extremity is the point. The extremity…’ It’s a touchstone, the ultimate reference-point, against which you measure the limits of passion and worship, see how far that can go.
And I think, if we had the space, if we were free of the mechanistic sort of control society exercises over us, telling us what we can and can’t do… to what extent would we go?
But nowadays, young people learn the mechanics of relationships and sex very young, from sources Alan Strang never had access to. Kids with social or sexual problems don’t suffer in isolation; they’re plugged into the internet, in touch with other kids just like them. They’ll be swapping fantasies and fetish images, forming a Web community, trying to convince the rest of us they’re normal…
RP Smriti Daniel’s article in the Sunday Times addresses this very point. The kids she talks to say a story like Equus is absolutely relevant to their generation because it’s all about being able to be yourself, and they feel today’s society – I’m talking about society here in Sri Lanka – gives them no space for that, they’re being questioned by authority all the time, unable to find autonomy.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you go and blind horses! But this is the licence we refer to when we speak of ‘artistic licence’. You can do these impossible things on stage, experiment with them for the good of society. Do a piece of theatre which has a horrific act like this as a reference-point, that deals with these terrible things.
But there again – as Shaffer points out – Equus is based on a true story. It really happened. Some people do feel so oppressed, so enclosed they have to strike out. Some people do blind horses.
Because they can’t bear to let themselves be forced into this straitjacket of normality?
RP As Dysart explains. He’s going to make Alan ‘normal’ – so that the boy can ‘trot off on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening,’ as he puts it. But what is ‘normal’?
The times we live in are conservative and repressed. Thirty years ago, when we were in our late teens and early twenties, the spirit was – well, I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but we were certainly more ‘liberated’ – in terms of being intellectually and sexually adventurous, allowing our minds and bodies to go down different roads, to explore, often very thoroughly – and I’m not saying this didn’t have its dangers – but ‘normal’ had a far broader, more inclusive definition than the one in use today.
Do you think people still have as much faith in psychiatry as they did in the Seventies? The belief that a psychiatrist could actually ‘cure’ mental illness – even though Dysart in the play insists that it’s just a patch-up job – was still fairly widespread back then. I wonder whether people, educated people, actually believe in such cures any more.
RP Shaffer, in one of his interviews, said that when the play was first staged in England, what upset people most was the horse-blinding scene – a typically English reaction. But then, when they took the play to New York, no-one there cared about the horses. Instead, all these people were very, very angry that psychiatry had been impugned and psychiatrists taken to task! Because in New York, everyone had a shrink, and everyone believed totally in the good old ‘talking cure’. For New Yorkers, the religious elements didn’t matter – the blasphemy in Equus was against the holy office of psychiatry!
But I don’t think it’s quite the same now. Some of those questions, which the play raises, ultimately were played out.
Yet clinical psychotherapy is probably far more effective now than it was back then. Only they don’t use talking cures, they use drugs.
RP They’re aiming at the same result, which is to heal. But do they heal? Look at what the play is saying: the ‘cure’ – nowadays the drug – it takes away your worship, takes away your passion. It plays hell with your mind. Some people become zombies.
Glasses replenished, we move on. Ponniah wants to talk about an aspect of Equus that interests him particularly: the opposition between his character, Dysart, and Alan Strang. The two are at least a generation apart, and at times you feel that Strang feels more warmly towards the psychiatrist than he ever does towards his own father, yet the two are often at loggerheads.
RP So many of Shaffer’s plays feature two antagonistic male roles… Royal Hunt of the Sun: Atahualpa and Pizarro. Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus. Alan Strang and Dysart in Equus.
There’s a strong element of male competition between the two, isn’t there? They’re at different ends of the potency curve; one an established psychiatrist with a reputation, a man of some power, high on the social pecking order – but he is ageing, beginning to doubt his powers; he’s fading. Alan is the dead opposite; just out of childhood, educationally and socially underprivileged, already a loser – he’s never even kissed a girl until that fatal night with Jill – but he’s all adolescent vigour and virility, and the ecstasy he achieves in his communion with Equus is far superior to anything Dysart can rise to. Shaffer seems deliberately to be setting them up as opposites, the old bull and the young buck. And how does the bull respond? By castrating the buck. Dysart takes away Alan’s threatening potency.
RP And that’s Dysart’s dilemma. He doesn’t want to do that.
But something seems to compel him?
RPYou know, Dysart and Alan go head to head in about four scenes. But from a clinical point of view, Dysart is playing his role as a doctor; he wants that recognition from Alan. To get him to talk. But he also uses a lot of cunning, he knows he’s doing something questionable.
In the second scene between Hesther (the magistrate who puts Alan into Dysart’s care) and Dysart, he actually admits it. He says ‘I’m jealous of Alan Strang. I envy him.’ And he pours it out, tells her exactly why. ‘I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos…’
Ah yes, the Greek myths that are Dysart’s nostalgic substitute for religion. How do you feel about that aspect of the character, his much-invoked identification with those ancient ecstasies? Don’t you think it’s all a bit phoney? I mean, here’s a Scottish psychiatrist working for the UK National Health Service, probably came out of a redbrick university somewhere…
RP He has no life. He has nothing – his relationship, his marriage…
Yes, exactly. Isn’t all this highfalutin Greek stuff just… Greek gods, Dionysian rituals… isn’t it just pretence? A replacement for the real life he doesn’t have?
RP But once again, that’s the extreme. Another reference point, if you like.
How much do you believe in your character?
RP Very much.
Was that the case first time round? (Rohan Ponniah also played Dysart in the 1978 production of Equus, to considerable acclaim.)
RP Oh yes. It was – I was marvelling at this just today – everybody in the cast understood the play, even though we were so young and there is so much to understand.
SdelZ That’s because we didn’t have all these strings attached. People nowadays imagine they’re supposed to think a certain way about things. We weren’t like that; we accepted things very easily, took them as they came.
You’re saying our generation was more sophisticated than today’s. A lot of Sri Lankans would be surprised to hear you say that.
RP Nowadays, people’s emotional and intellectual responses are far more conditioned by what they see on TV and the internet. These things give you a script; they tell you how to respond. Young people use terms and images they’ve seen on TV to express themselves. They watch… Neighbours or something, and they adopt the words and actions of characters on the show.
It was clear from the 1978 production that everyone, actors and director alike, understood the psychological minutiae of the play. Do you feel the same is true this time around? You two get it, obviously, but what about other members of the cast?
RP They’re getting it more and more.
SdelZ They would love to sit and talk about it. That’s for sure. We haven’t had too much of that.
RP The play can’t help but stimulate.
SdelZ It does that all the time, yes.
RP The words, the issues, do get through. But I still say that back then we were dealing with a far more – you can call it sophisticated, you can call it liberated, adventurous, free – cast and audience.
SdelZ People who had experienced far more of life.
RP Life is something you’ll experience anyway. But for us, then, it was experienced in a far more connected sense. It wasn’t arm’s length, coming at us through the media. There was more human contact, more connecting with the world around you. Because that was where you got your stimulation. That was your only reference point. Forget TV, barely anybody had a telephone! So real life was our main influence.
RP Still is, my dear, still is.