Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 16 – 25, 2022
Playwright: Ian Sinclair
Director: Tait de Lorenzo
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Tom Dawson, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick, Nathaniel Langworthy, Charlotte Otton, Brontë Sparrow
Images by Robert Catto
The story takes place barely a century ago, during the Great Depression. Several hundred people gather to participate in a dance marathon, in hopes of winning a cash prize of $1,500. They are only allowed ten-minute breaks every 2 hours, and we hear early on, that previous contests had gone on each time, for over a thousand hours. It is a perverse reality show, that is part Big Brother and part ancient Roman blood sport, capitalising on the human’s insatiable thirst for exploitative entertainment. Based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel and Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, this new adaptation by Ian Sinclair moves the action from California to Sydney, and is concisely retitled Horses.
Although retaining the macabre qualities of the original, Sinclair’s vision is decidedly humorous, in this very modern transposition to the stage. Indeed, the bizarre conceit lends itself to a dark comedy, which director Tait de Lorenzo does not hesitate to use to her advantage. Instead of relying on the tragedy’s undeniably sad dimensions, de Lorenzo provokes us into thought, by making us laugh. The result is a surprisingly funny show, that also cares to be poignant enough for the important questions, about who we are and why we are, to emerge.
Production design by Cris Baldwin draws attention to the event as a spectacle for amusement, whilst ensuring that we never lose sight of the difficult times during which it had occurred. Benjamin Brockman’s lights convey the sorrowful heart of the story, even when offering bedazzling concoctions that fascinate our eyes. Similarly sophisticated, is sound design by Zac Saric offering an intricate and complex landscape, often telling us more than the dialogue does, about all that we need to know about Horses.
An excellent ensemble of six players, individually idiosyncratic, but wonderfully cohesive as a whole, take us on a revelatory and ultimately brutal vaudeville, about our worst selves. Nathaniel Langworthy and Charlotte Otton are effortlessly comical, with mischievous presences that insist on our mirthful responses. Tom Dawson and Caitlin Doyle-Markwick bring whimsy to the production, with a sense of experimental freedom, that helps us broaden our minds, as we form meanings from a theatre that speaks more in terms of symbols than it does in words. Justin Amankwah and Brontë Sparrow deliver the sentimental aspects of Horses, both captivating, and effective in engaging our empathy, for this hideous moment of self-reflection.
Watching Horses today, we need to be conscious of the difference in circumstances, between now and then. Although poised for a period of recession, we must not interpret the story in too similar a way from when it had been written. It is crucial that the truth about extreme wealth disparities in the twenty-first century, should play a significant role in modern interpretations of the story.
Like the competing dancers in Horses, we often find ourselves fighting one another, thinking that that is the only way to get ahead. Convinced that there can only be one winner in so many of our circumstances, we have been trained to not only act ruthlessly, but to submit to humiliation and self-blame. We have grown accustom to the top ten percent owning virtually everything in the world that is commodifiable, and we let them manipulate our lives to serve their purpose, of worsening that unforgivable discrepancy.
There is no reason, especially today, for any of us to demean ourselves in the name of entertainment, in order to make a buck, yet that seems to be par for the course. In so much of today’s idea of amusement, from television to TikTok, people put themselves through all manner of debasement, so that they can become winners of little consequence. The ones who benefit most, do not have themselves shown. They might shoot the horses, but they show us no mercy. They simply send in the clowns and reap all the rewards.