Trafalgar Studio One, London

Zubin Varla interview: 'Equus has been the most collaborative thing I've ever done'

Equus, Peter Shaffer's modern masterpiece about the suppression and expression of passion, tells a uniquely disturbing story of a teenager called Alan Strang who blinds the horses he has been caring for. The play, originally premiered under the auspices of the National Theatre in 1973, follows the treatment he receives from a psychiatrist called Martin Dysart that creates a kind of existential crisis for the doctor even as he manages to free his patient from his demons.

Meeting Zubin Varla, who is currently playing the psychiatrist in a brilliant new production which has transferred to Trafalgar Studios for the summer after premiering at Theatre Royal Stratford East earlier in the year, is to find an actor who has thought deeply about the play and his character - but is also able to leave him behind on stage.

Brooding and intense onstage, he is personable and highly engaging as we chat in his dressing room on a Thursday afternoon. He has just performed to a packed matinee, and with an evening performance looming, he admits, "It's hard, but exciting - and it continues to be because of what has been set up, with investigation and experimentation within the company. A play like this feeds you."

As it feeds and involves the audience intimately, too. The complex, conflicted character of Dysart, he says, "has two councillors in the play - Hester [the magistrate who brings Alan Strang to see him to be treated] and the real audience. He goes to see his own councillor in the shape of the audience, with whom he examines it afresh each time. He's not preaching to the audience, but saying 'this is where I am, I'm lost and I need your help to work this out'. The process of working it out live with each new audience keeps me alive. How they respond can be different every time."

Taking the play around the country to different audiences bore this out. "Different regions react differently - it may be that their expectations of theatre, and not seeing as much of it as we have access to in London, changes their experience - they may be more hallowed or reserved about it and behave in a certain way. At Stratford East, our audience was often new to theatre and to the play, and it created such an excitable atmosphere in the auditorium, reacting so openly and freely to things they'd not heard before."

But this production - and its challenging young director Ned Bennett - also dared to do things differently, with both the actors and the play, that had not been tried before. When he was approached about appearing n the play, he went to see him and “had a wonderfully freewheeling chat” about the play.

“I loved his energy and the ego-less creativity that is pouring out of him and the team he works with regularly that is so passionate about the work."

A scene from Equus 
Photo credit: The Other Richard

The process was massively collaborative. "In the rehearsal room, you generally had Jessica [Hung Han Yun, the lighting designer], Giles [Thomas, the composer and sound designer] and Georgia [Lowe, the set and costume designer] in for the entire five-week period, the same as we were. They were discovering the play at the same time we did.

“All the things we were inventing were being sparked off in their vocabulary as well. Their creativity was as welcomed as everyone else's is. You have this thrilling atmosphere where I can say to Jessica, what if we could throw a shadow up there; it's hugely collaborative, more than anything I've ever done before."

The production explores a kind of ritualistic theatre of intricate movement that was very different from the original John Dexter production with its giant steel-framed horses' heads that were designed by John Napier. Here, the horses are just represented by the actors. "It reminds me of Pina Bausch's The Rite of Spring, the way that human bodies interact with each other," says Zubin.

But he and his director also explored beneath the physicality of the play into its essential philosophy. "In the chats that Ned and I had we talked about the diaries from the original 1973 production and the influence that John Dexter [its original director] had over the process and over Peter Shaffer. Peter freely admits that the central characters in his three major works - The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Amadeus and this - play out the dualist tension within himself,  what scholars call the Apollonian versus the Dionysian.

“It’s clear when you see interviews with him, that he's a very compassionate, curious but head-bound man, who wishes he could enact that fantasy, that he was physically capable or courageous enough, and he feels he is not, and envies those that can live with that kind of sensual abandonment. That's who he's written with Dysart."

He adds, "The more I'm playing it, what I feel Peter is obsessed with is the act of worship and how the act of worship can transform and elevate the human experience of life."

Dysart, to his eternal pain (and shame), can't share it. The playing area is defined by a billowing white curtain on three sides of the stage - "that came from Dysart's line about the black cave of the psyche - he feels imprisoned in his life, but feels something prodding him in the back that says the only way he can perhaps experience some kind of freedom is to leave all his preconceptions behind and go wandering around Greece for ten years.

“But he's never going to be able to do that. What's tragic in the end is that he's left saying to the audience, 'I can't get there though I'd love to - but I will play it such homage to know that there is something greater than myself because there is now in my mouth a sharp chain that will never come out.' Shafter is asking the audience if they can do it."

So the play throws down a challenge to the audience as well as to the actor. And as with Zubin's last theatre job last year, in the UK premiere of the musical Fun Home at the Young Vic in which he played a married father of a daughter who is in fact gay, it raises big questions that can change lives.

Zubin Varla in Fun Home
Zubin Varla in Fun Home at the Young Vic
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

"It was a piece of magic”, recollects the actor. “It was so generous, and it was unequivocally changing people's lives every life, and we met them every night in the Young Vic foyer. One man who I'd known for a number of years embraced me after one performance and said, 'you don't know how many men of my generation's story this is telling'."

Disappointingly, it never transferred to the West End, as was expected at the time; "Knowing the effect it could have, I wanted it to be seen by more people."

But now Equus, which wasn't planned for a West End run, is there instead, and he says, growing richer day by day. "Even this afternoon, there was stuff going on that is not plotted, that has happened live this afternoon. Some things have to be nailed down for a lighting cue, but there is a freedom and elasticity that is fantastic."

Equus is at Trafalgar Studios until 7th September. 

Equus tickets are available now.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

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