Horse's mouth

The revival of Peter Shaffer's Equus had London critics in transports of delight. The Skinny's Adam McCully talks to the man himself, lead actor and national institution Simon Callow, to see what all the fuss is about

Feature by Adam McCully | 05 Feb 2008

Think of Simon Callow and the rather unwelcome image of a bekilted
thespian upended on a wedding reception dancefloor springs to mind. Certainly, his turn as Gareth in Four Weddings And A Funeral made him a household name, but it's the laziest of shorthands for such a prodigious and protean talent.

Callow's bewilderingly diverse CV takes in everything from prolific film work with Merchant Ivory costume dramas such as Howard's End, big ticket Hollywood roles such as Shakespeare In Love through, incredibly, the camp nonsense of all three Streetfighters to regular television roles. He has also found time to author a string of successful biographies on literary and theatrical characters. For now though, his formidable energies are focused on his first love: the stage, and the critically acclaimed revival of Peter Shaffers's Equus, which this month visits the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and The King's in Edinburgh.

A landmark of post-war theatre, Equus will be familiar to many from
Sidney Lumet's 1977 film. In this new production, Callow plays Dr
Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist charged with the case of the highly
disturbed Alan Strang, played here by Alfie Allen, bother of Lily and
son of Keith and fresh from a triumphant role in award-winning Brit flick Atonement. Strang has become obsessed with the play's eponymous horse god and his subverted religious fervour leads him to commit acts of horrific
barbarity against the very creatures he adores. Callow's character, whilst being repelled by Strang's deeds, gradually comes to sympathise with and eventually envy the visceral passion of his belief. In a famous passage, Dr Dysart bemoans his own timid affection for the Greek pantheon and contrasts it with Strang's more robust style of worship. On a trip to the Parthenon, Strang rides his God bareback and in the throes of this ecstatic communion reaches orgasm in best pagan style.

It's all familiar territory for Callow. Shaffer is an old friend and Callow shone as an exuberant Mozart in Shaffer's 1979 play Amadeus. And Scottish audiences will hold no fears for the 58-year-old actor. He made his stage debut in The Three Estates at the Assembly Rooms, an experience which he found "rather overwhelming, because there was the whole of the Scottish acting profession there in front of me, and we, the Young Lyceum Theatre Company (YLT) were lying sprawled upon the step forming a sort of human soundtrack". After a stint with the YLT, he went to The Traverse. "The play I was in transferred to London, that transferred to the West End and that was my big break," he recounts succinctly.

He recently returned to the capital as the splendidly curmudgeonly
and self-regarding thespian Gary Essendine in Noel Coward's Present
Laughter. When asked if this role is apposite and if the accusations
of over-the-top luvviness that trail after him like a cloud of air
kisses are true, he replies in his mellifluously measured cadence,
"Well, I am, I should have to say, essentially guilty… [meaningful
pause] I am… [dramatic pause] an actor [he says drawing out the second
syllable into a long melodious diphthong]." A banality in the mouths
of most, a sonnet in the voice of a master.

It was difficult to tell over the phone whether Callow was sporting a fedora and a gorgeous pink rag of a suit, but the details of wardrobe are irrelevant. If he isn't wearing them, he should be: this is a man who relishes his role on or off the stage. He is so affable and charming that any slightly pompous demeanor is forgiven instantly; flicked aside like the ash from a foot-long cigarette holder. Inevitably however, public perception does have him typecast to a certain kind of role. You can't do all those Merchant Ivorys, the Cowards and Wildes without creating a certain expectation. So it will surprise some that he has taken on the drier, more subdued Dr Dysart. For Callow, Dysart "is a regular guy, who expects conformity from society and is not a wild man" and "somewhat like Hamlet the actor comes to inhabit the role". Previous incumbents of this role include Richard Griffiths, Anthonys Hopkins and Perkins, Richard Burton and in a stroke of inspired casting, Leonard Nimoy and
Sideshow Mel from the Simpsons.

This revival of Equus reunites two key members of the creative team from 1973: director Thea Sharrock and John Napier, whose design for the original production is widely regarded as amongst the finest ever done for the theatre. Callow refuses to be drawn on the details of the updated staging, save for the cryptic assertion that it is "more austere, more stripped back, and more startling." One can safely assume however that the brown velour tracksuits called for in the original stage directions have been binned, having accrued some unfortunate connotations since the early '70s.

London notices have raved about the new production, particularly the life-size horse puppets. Apparently exquisitely expressive, these are portrayed by actors with outlandish articulated head pieces and stilt-like hoof contraptions which, combined with David Heresey's lighting, promise to lift an already epic narrative into the realms of the spectacular. While all this is tempting enough, Alfie Allen's extended nude scenes should be ample compensation for the celebrity spotters trying to hide their disappointment that Daniel 'Harry Potter' Radcliffe didn't make it past the Watford Gap.

12 - 16 Feb, Theatre Royal Glasgow
18 - 23 Feb, King's Theatre /