Anyone who has ever felt that the drudgery of everyday life is denying them some greater experience (that is, pretty well all of us) might feel able to relate to Peter Schaffer’s legendary international hit. Its recent London revival cast Richard Griffiths opposite Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. The latter is replaced by Alfie Allen (brother of singer Lily) in this, the first UK tour of this production while Simon Callow takes on the role of the psychiatrist.
In the play Callow undertakes analysis with a boy (Allen) who has blinded six horses in the stable at which he works; the slowly emerging story of an adolescent who has created surrogate gods of his own to replace the empty consumerism of modern culture, has much to say about, in Callow’s view, Laingian psychiatry and religion. ‘This psychiatrist sees himself as eliminating the pain of his various patients, but at the cost of their individuality,’ he says. ‘So, it’s a Laingian point of view. His dream is of carving children’s hearts out – the psychological symbolism is obvious. It’s the same way that RD Laing came to feel that psychiatry was just an instrument of society in forcing people to conform.’
In many ways, the piece has divided opinion about its precise meaning, though Callow is firm in his conviction that it is not a right-wing play, a charge often thrown at it by critics from the left. ‘It has a fairly bad reputation on the left, this play, because it was thought to endorse some kind of mindless return to nature, but I don’t think it does that, and Schaffer was very anxious that that isn’t what is understood by the play at all. It’s about how modern society, in refusing to acknowledge the sacredness or significance of anything is engaged in a Buddhist-like chain of desire, which it can never escape from; it’s always engaged in a pursuit of pleasure which can never really be satisfied and has no nurturing capacity.’