>EQUUS by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 18 may 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the substation garden
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>HORSES FOR COURSES

The Substation gardens at night: the whisper of a tropical breeze, the rustling of leaves and the enchantment of ethereal music. Oh, and the ever-present roar of traffic. The outdoor setting of Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre's EQUUS created wonderful possibilities but it presented problems as well.

EQUUS is the story of a girl (or, in the original script, a boy) who is born simple and passionate, and then brought up without society or learning: those things which complicate simplicity, which moderate passion. Instead she is fed religion - the books of Job and Revelations - and she makes their burning, prophetic language her own. She thus creates her own mythology of guilt, transgression and blossoming adolescent sexuality, whose god is the horse.

It is the job of Martin Dysant, a psychologist, to "cure" this girl of her delusions when she comes before him for blinding four horses. But can he return her to normality without destroying the only thing which makes her special - her sense of worship?

The play comes at us, then, from two angles: the ardently primitive, personified by the girl, Alice; and the reasoned and intellectual, personified by the doctor. This production managed one side with aplomb but somewhat neglected the other.

>>'The play comes at us from two angles: the ardently primitive and the reasoned and intellectual. This production managed one side with aplomb but somewhat neglected the other.'

The primal side was beautifully expressed. In a clever use of the gardens' space, the foreground was occupied by the speaking characters and the background, among the trees and shadows, was kept for the horses (four actors wearing beautifully-crafted equine heads and moving with convincing animality). These were manifestations of the "demons of the psyche", as Dysant calls them, and their dancing - at once innocent and slightly Satanic - infused the play's dialogue with a dark echo of the subconscious.

The more emotionally charged scenes in the foreground were equally effective. Serena Ho, who played Alice, was particularly strong and displayed impressive range. She was able to switch between extremes - from glowering, gawky and dangerous to bruised and tender - with speed and sureness and her fit of religious ecstasy, which had the potential to be horribly embarrassing, was wholly believable.

The quieter, more intellectual scenes, however, were more problematic. Some of the cast had difficulty with projecting their voices into the open space and while they didn't quite shout, much tonal variation and nuance was lost. Chris Cheers' direction, which was confident whenever movement was required, often became aimless when it wasn't. And Sonny Lim as Dysant, strong in his confrontational scenes, would have benefited from the intimacy of an enclosed space in his more reflective ones.

This was the problem: when the evocative music, the dancing horses and the dramatic were turned off, the play begged to go inside and it wasn't allowed to. When Shaffer's dialogue became more subtle and questioning, more wordy, it was drowned by the night air, rather than growing and feeding on itself in the claustrophobic confines of a theatre.

Sensitive lighting would have helped the mood and, while this is difficult to achieve outside because ambient light interferes, it would have been nice to see an attempt, instead of everything being illuminated by the same bright glare.

There were problems with this production of EQUUS. But then again, most were a direct result of its setting and in turn, it was the use of this setting which gave it its best and most striking moments. There is a price to pay for everything and here, it happened to be a price worth paying.