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Equus, Ethan Kai , Zubin Varla Ethan Kai (front) and Zubin Varla on Equus. Photo by The Other Richard

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Equus: interview with stars Ethan Kai and Zubin Varla

By Peter Lawler
Published on August 28, 2019

Hello Ethan and Zubin. Both of your performances are riveting in very different ways and for different reasons. What drew each of you to to Equus and to these roles?

Ethan: His complexity. After my first read of the play I was so fascinated by him and I just wanted to know more. It wasn't until my third reading that I felt I started to piece things together and started to see this young man come to life in front of me.

Zubin: I was listening to interviews with Peter Shaffer in which he admits that the central relationship in a lot of his plays examines and reflects his own inner tensions, often quoted as the Apollonian v the Dionysian. The god of rationality and pure mind v the god of sensuality, chaos, abandonment. You can perhaps see one as head bound, the other, instinctual. Dysart and Alan, but also Dysart’s inner tension. To the Greeks they were entwined in human nature, and I think Shaffer felt the same. In Dysart he gives us a man desperate for the experience of ‘feeling’. We meet a man on the edge of his dark night where all his past certainties are slipping away, and he finds the appeal of fantasy, escape, passion, shockingly seductive. His ‘normal’ prescribed life is almost like a disease to him and he has lost his footing. If he cannot examine his way through this he could perhaps drop off the cliff quite willingly.

There’s clearly a fascinatingly dynamic relationship between Alan and Dysart. What kind of chemistry exists between these two characters on stage and how do you go about creating it every night?

Ethan: I think the rehearsal process left us in really good stead. Ned our director encouraged a lot of play from the offset. He was very involved with the process of picking apart the script and finding the detail, while also giving us plenty of freedom for us to play and find new things all the time. Zubin, being such a reactive and committed actor only makes it easier to come on stage and establish a relationship each time.

Zubin: Dysart is a compassionate man. He is drawn to damaged people, he is moved by the extremities of human suffering and our coping mechanisms and his instinct is to offer understanding, he knows how fragile a psyche can be, how easily wounded. Alan fascinates him because the boy has the strength of imagination, and then the need, to invent his own private religion, to indulge, unafraid and at first unashamed in his own passion. Dysart almost envies the bravery and finds himself appreciating the attraction of such an escape from normal life. Alan becomes for Dysart a young Greek mythical figure out of the stories and land he so loves.

This is a very successful run. You’ve got audiences night after night making a connection to these characters. What is this 1973 psychological thriller’s relevance in 2019? What is it about the story that resonates and with people are connecting?

Ethan: I think the topic of mental health, especially in young men is particularly a current topic at the moment. Mental health will always hit home for people, pretty much everyone at least knows someone who struggles with mental health.

Zubin: It’s just a great story. I think it would be relevant whenever you tell it because of it’s universal themes. Primarily to do with the human condition and what we make of our lives. Is conforming to the accepted norms of western materialism good for us? Does a successful career equal happiness? Are we forgetting about or losing a more ancient and essential connection with Nature, the Universe, or god if that’s the name you give to it? Is worship and love for something greater, more mysterious than ourselves, a good way of keeping Humanity humble? When we are lost we all seek love and understanding, the comfort that we are not alone, that our suffering is witnessed.

Power and authority between Dysart and Strang seem to be extremely fluid. Who has the power in this story?

Ethan: The power definitely shifts throughout the course of of the play. Alan comes to understand that Dysart can help him, while Dysart starts to see that Alan has something in his life which has eluded him his entire existence. This creates such an interesting dynamic between the characters.

Zubin: Yes, it alternates between the two of them. Alan can sing adverts for two days or refuse to answer questions. Dysart can hypnotise him but only with his consent, or tactically curtail or cancel sessions for non co-operation, knowing the boy needs this push and shove so he can speak out loud what he so needs to. Ultimately, the boy’s act of violence, his nightmares, perhaps have the power. It is the unbearable burden of what he has done that he is desperate to be released from and drives him to speak.

When I saw the play two other narratives came to mind; Saki’s Sredni Vashtar, in which a young boy sets up a religion to a wrathful and murderous ferret and the Irish playwright Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, in which an English practitioner of what is essentially a fictional version of Scientology ‘auditing’ an Irish client ends up having the psychological revelation at the end of the play. Did you match Equus up to any other stories as you were preparing to play these characters?

Ethan: No but I did see Amadeus at the National a couple of years ago and seeing the relationship between Salieri and Mozart definitely had parallels with the relationship between Alan and Dysart.

Zubin: No, I can’t say I did. I have been reading and re-reading a great amount of Greek myth and looking at art books of the period as this is Martin’s ‘happy’ place, his obsession. I love that Ovid is described by one writer as being in love with ‘passion’. Or rather what a passion feels like to the human going through it. And not just ordinary passion, passion in extremis, where it transforms, metamorphosises, translates into a divine experience. It seems to me this is exactly what Shaffer and his Dysart are fascinated with.

Does Equus fall into a wider discourse about mental health to both of you?

Ethan: Yeah absolutely.

Zubin: Yes, as in what we consider to be normal. Who decides what is normal? Society? Obviously there are certain civilised ways of behaviour without which society could not function and anarchy would reign, but can we understand the mental ‘splitting’ from reality as a rational reaction to the difficulty of human existence and relationship? Is the retreat from reality into a ‘different’ space a valid response?

Religion looms largely and darkly over this play. What do you think Shaffer was trying to say about religion’s influence/effect on society?

Ethan: I think that the great thing about this play is that it offers no concrete answers for the themes that it brings up, religion being one of them. This means that it invites people to leave the theatre with their own interpretation of the story. 2 people with 2 different relationships with religion will likely take away 2 completely different interpretations of what this play says about religion.

Zubin: I think he’s observing that extremes of anything can be dangerous. That religions can offer structure and stability and morals, also isolationism, superiority and judgementalism. That interpretation is everything. That indoctrination leaves little room for individual growth and self knowledge. And yet I feel Shaffer also knows religion has it’s roots in stories and those roots go deep back in time to myth and the ancient world. That our gods are archetypal images. Images we all seem to graduate to when in trouble. Perhaps he also hopes, as a sensitive compassionate philosophical artist that there is such a thing as the divine, and that we can all be touched by it?

What about parenting? There is a scene in the play where Alan’s mother, with conviction, asserts that Dysart is looking in the wrong places to find the root cause of his condition. Where does Equus fall in terms of nature vs nurture?

Ethan: Like with religion, it’s the same for nature vs nurture. People with different upbringings will leave with different views on the parents, whether they believe they were directly responsible or not.

Zubin: Dysart’s speech at the top of Act II, before the scene with Dora, questions what makes us what we are. Imprinting. He wonders where that magnetic attraction to something in a child’s formation comes from. He is suggesting that this comes before any nurture has had an influence. If so, where does it come from? Is that god? The mother then suggests that if he knew God, he would know about the devil. The two do not exist without each other. Good and evil. If Dysart is to contemplate that there are things in heaven and earth beyond his comprehension, forces at play which he cannot explain or effect, he is lost. If it is indeed nature, not nurture, he has no job. I don’t think Shaffer wants to answer this question. He just want to pose it.

Finally, these are two very, very intense roles. What do you do to decompress after getting into the heads of Martin Dysart and Alan Strang every night?

Ethan: Eat food, hang out with good people and a good night's sleep.

Zubin: I generally find myself on the train staring melancholically out the window and then remind myself to think good happy thoughts and listen to some good music!


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