Waves of nostalgia hit Camps Bay recently when US-based actor Jeremy Crutchley met with local actor Sven Ruygrok to compare theatre stories.
Both actors are linked to Peter Shaffer’s provocative play Equus – Crutchley to Pieter Toerien’s 1985 production, and Ruygrok to the fresh production, which opens at Toerien’s Theatre on the Bay tomorrow, Friday March 29.
Both Crutchley (Black Sails, 2014, Sacred Elephant, 2013, the original SA production of The Rocky Horror Show, 1993) and Ruygrok, (Spud, 2010, Spud: The Madness Continues, 2012 and Spud: Learning to Fly, 2013) beat top candidates for the converted role of Alan Strang in this award-winning play. Incidentally, both actors had previously collaborated on the second film instalment of John van de Ruit’s Spud: The Madness Continues with A-list actors Troye Sivan and Monty Python legend John Cleese.
“The role requires not only physical stamina and immense focus, but also intelligent text analysis to delve into the troubled mind of the lead character”, said Ruygrok, “Of course I desired the role; the audition process was gruelling and involved many callbacks. There was a lot at stake, I wanted to prove to the creative team and myself that could do it,” he said.
British born Shaffer wrote over 18 plays during his illustrious career, which earned him Oscar, Golden Globe and Tony award accolades. Before his death in 2016 at the age of 90, Shaffer gave the literary world plays such as Amadeus, Five Finger Exercise, Royal Hunt Of The Sun and of course the perennial hit, Equus.
Shaffer was compelled to write Equus upon learning of a crime involving a teenage boy in the British town of Suffolk, sandwiched between the sleepy counties of Essex to the south and Cambridgeshire to the west. The conservative community was shaken to hear of the horrific act, which saw six horses being blinded in an act of abhorrent violence. Without exploring the actual facts of the crime, Shaffer created a possible world in which the action could have existed.
In his 1973 play Shaffer tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has an almost pathological obsession with horses, framed in a religious context. Shaffer explored his own obsessions in creating Equus and would focus on the conflict that exists between body and mind, emotion and intellect and rational modernity and primeval impulse. Equus would go on to play to audiences for 1 209 performances on Broadway before closing in 1977 before being made into an Oscar-winning film, starring Richard Burton. Over the years there have been many stage revival, the most notable being the 2007 West End production, starring Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe.
More than purely writing a play that would spark audiences to discuss the philosophical themes, Shaffer created a product that crackles with dramatic tension and at galloping pace keeps the audience questioning the true principals of a modern “civilised” life.
Pieter Toerien discovered a young Jeremy Crutchley in 1985 as he was visiting the Market Theatre precinct located in downtown Johannesburg CBD, now called Newtown. Crutchley is said to have been busking for tips when South Africa’s leading impresario, then already twenty years into his career, spotted the youth and offered him the opportunity to audition for a revival of the exciting play that had set the West End and Broadway alight. That production was directed by Rex Garner and Robert Whitehead and went on to star Jeremy Crutchley, Darryl Forbes Dawson, Drummond Marais, Paul Buckby and an all-star South African ensemble.
Mr Toerien said, “When I met Jeremy for the first time all those years ago, I saw in his energy that was dynamic, to say the least; an enigmatic young man who held such skill and intelligence. Years later, I see the same qualities in Sven, who clearly has a very bright future ahead of him. What he is bringing to the role of Alan in Equus is riveting to watch”.
Mr Toerien had previously produced Equus in 1975 at the then Nico Malan Opera House. The production was directed by Leonard Schach, and was not without its own challenges. Schach was urgently summoned to meet with the ultra-right wing Publication’s Board to discuss, or rather defend, the play’s nude scene where the young boy kills the horses. Schach circumvented the board’s objections, which pertained only to the nudity and not the slaughter of the horses, by agreeing to dim the stage lighting.
The production went on to star London actors John Fraser and Dai Bradley and enjoyed tours to Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.
In the 45 years since the play made its international debut, psychiatric techniques have certainly evolved, but what remains as a constant is the universal theme of passion and surviving without it in a modern world. A theme that director Fred Abrahamse is very keen to explore.
While Mr Abrahamse helms this fresh and exciting production of Equus, movement direction is by Marc Goldberg and set and costume designs are by Marcel Meyer. Featured in this production is the next generation of up-and-coming South African actors, including Monique Basson, Cassandra-Tendai Mapanda, Maggie Gericke, Andrew Roux, Len-Barry Simons and Marc Goldberg alongside seasoned professional Graham Hopkins as the psychologist Martin Dysart.
Equus plays at Theatre on the Bay from tomorrow, Friday March 29 until Saturday April 20, before transferring to Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre. Tickets range from R140 to R240, book through Computicket.