Anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting Sven Ruygrok would know that he has a very humble and genuine way of approaching not only theatre, but also life. There’s much more to Ruygrok the performer than the child star of Spud. He wants to tell stories, to make people think, without having audiences see him in his characters, as that would do an injustice to the story being told. All these qualities make Ruygrok the perfect performer to take on the role of Alan Strang in the current staging of Peter Shaffer’s multi-award winning Equus at Theatre on the Bay.
Ruygrok may not be a formally trained actor, but when you see him onstage —having performed in diverse productions, such as Epstein, The Mother and Shakespeare in Love— his performance-style has an undeniable dynamic edge. It's exactly because Ruygrok doesn’t have drama school training that his approach to character-development is so refreshingly authentic, drawing inspiration from various sources.
He reveals that it comes down to embracing a variety of approaches guided by the character he’s focussing on. Sometimes he looks to the text, other times to music, or even scents to inform his character, because not having a fixed style keeps Ruygrok playing and allows him to add many techniques to his repertoire, or as he calls it his 'toolbox'.
Ruygrok is constantly developing through new experience. It's then no surprise that his experience working with director Fred Abrahamse on Epstein in 2015 has informed his approach to Equus, also directed by Abrahamse.
‘Epstein taught me a sense of trust with Fred in terms of a director’s relationship with an actor,’ says Ruygrok, as he recalls a Saturday at Theatre on the Bay during rehearsals where Abrahamse worked with him on something that he ‘was struggling to break through’. ‘I remember tears and the whole lot. That stuck with me, because it created a deep sense of trust, knowing that I could place my feelings, thoughts, and concerns in not just a director, but I imagine a friend too, and in so doing create a rapport and a relationship where I could go to places and still feel safe.'
That Epstein-method allows Ruyrok interpretative freedom within a set structure. It's this freedom that guides Ruygrok in giving expression to his Equus character’s journey: ‘I have certain hooks that I need to get at in Equus. I know that at a certain point in the play I need to reach a certain, call it a, climax or an emotional exclamation mark, but how I get there every single night is different and that’s okay.'
Epstein-Ruygrok has grown into Equus-Ruygrok with an understanding of the maturity and balance one gains from life experience. Ruygrok expresses himself as very grateful for continuously having work and the opportunity to develop his craft. That, along with the fact that he has also gotten married, has anchored him as an individual and as a performer with a clear understanding that being an actor is a passion, but not an all consuming dream.
Such a level-headed approach is necessary when one considers that Ruyrok’s Equus-character, Alan Strang, is an intense young man who seeks salvation in self-created rituals and finds himself the patient of psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart, after he blinds six horses. To understand his character, Ruygrok looks beyond Alan’s obvious psychosomatic issues to uncover what truly informs Alan's emotional turmoil.
‘I would describe him as a deeply bewildered and fearful seventeen-year-old boy who is lost… going through many revelations,’ says Ruygrok. This understanding of Alan is informed by the fact that Ruygrok himself also works with teenagers and finds Peter Shaffer’s remarkable Equus, even though written in the 1970s, ageless and very relevant.
Ruygrok hopes that people will see their own sons in Alan. ‘There’s a sense of him being deeply disturbed,' he admit, 'but I’m not talking about that'.
'I’m talking about the fact that his parents, Frank and Dora, have protected him the best way they know how; trying to do the best job they can with what they have. But, unfortunately, Alan is a by-product of that —both the good and the bad— and he's a teenager desperately looking for something to hold on to and claim for himself.’
Passionately talking about Alan and what level of understanding is needed to look beyond him as just a troubled teenager, Ruygrok reveals that this is a dream role for him. ‘I remember back when I was doing Epstein I pitched Equus to Fred,’ he amusedly recalls, ‘so, bucket list role, absolutely!’
As Ruygrok unpacks why Alan in Equus is on that list, he reveals how the role allows him to consider life in a broader sense, tackling questions of parenting, motives, and where people draw inspiration from:
‘What’s makes people feel alive? What brings me to life? I think one of the things for me is storytelling, and Alan has an incredible story. But really the question of why this play and why bring Alan to life onstage is passion and normalcy. What is normal? My word, I think people need to speak about this more! We have Instagram-expectations of the normal body, the normal thigh, the normal six pack, the normal perfect relationship. Modelled on what? I hope this play asks those questions.'
Pair this insight with the fact that Equus is a psychological thriller, then playing the role of the troubled Alan unquestionably requires the actor stepping into the role to bare his soul.
‘Baring your soul? Absolutely!’, Ruygrok agrees. ‘I think Alan deserves nothing less.’
Emotionally, then, it can’t be an easy performance to give night after night?
‘I don’t know,’ Ruygrok considers.
He compares the experience he has to go through as Alan to an accident, the only difference being that unlike an accident he knows that the emotional impact is coming —the ramifications, however, still unknown.
'I think as an actor you have to guard yourself. I’ve had a lot of time to sit with Alan. My wife and I have talked about Alan too, so he’s not completely unknown. The most important thing is to have the support from (a) your cast and (b), most importantly, the people in your personal life who are backing you by holding you accountable and just holding you too while saying that it’s okay and that they love you regardless of this play, regardless of where you have to go with it. Prayer and meditation have helped me find a sense of peace, because at the end of the day it's not just a character, but also my soul and body on the stage.’
These emotional and psychological tones of Equus are elevated by physically challenging choreography. Ruygrok reveals this as supporting the narrative.
‘The movement speaks to what is actually going on. There’s a lot of physical exertion of the body —trotting and cantering, moving back-and-forward, back-and-forward, moving up-and-down, up-and-down— and that movement speaks to the energy of the emotionally heightened text. The best way I can explain it is that people tend to bounce their legs up and down when they're nervous. That bouncing is a natural response to rid nervous energy. Similarly, the physical aspect of this play shows the frenetic, frantic, emotional well-being of Alan: he’s passionate about horses, wonderfully and lustfully in love with them, as well as confused and fearful.’
Because of the nudity and simulated sex that goes along with all of Alan's feelings, Equus is often labelled a controversial play. Although Ruygrok (much like Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, who also took on the role of Alan) initially made his mark as a young performer in Spud, Ruygrok is very level headed about it all. He confidently explains that the link between the person taking on the role and people’s reaction to the nudity in the production should not overshadow the story being told.
‘For me it’s irrelevant who plays the role. I think if my aim is to try and shock and be all, “Look at me, Sven Ruygrok breaking out from Spud!”, or to try and get a sense of acclaim, I have failed miserably. My hope is that whoever plays this role will take anyone by surprise —not just by their performance, but by the power of the words.’
And as far as the nudity and simulated sex are concerned, Ruygrok admits that people not acquainted with the story may initially be taken by surprise, but that surprise will not be driven by a sense of shock, because the aim is not to be explicitly outrageous.
‘Unlike the nudity in Game of Thrones or a lot of similar pop culture that’s currently available on live-stream, YouTube, or in music videos that I find to be quite grotesque and not vital to the story, it’s particularly important that Alan is nude,' Ruygrok elaborates, 'because Peter Shaffer writes that a horse isn’t dressed, that it’s the most naked thing you ever saw. For Alan, this is his god, this is his be-all and end-all. For anyone who would strive to worship, you want to be as close to oneness as possible. For Alan that means the removing of clothes.’
The nudity required by the play is symbolic of Alan's transition into adulthood. In that transitional phase most people get lost, but for 'him it’s a deep sense of being judged by his god'.
'My hope is —and I trust Fred implicitly— that the way it will be lit will not be grotesque or in your face.' The aim is to reveal Alan in the likeness of his god. The nudity, then, is not the central focus. ‘There are deeper things happening,' shares Ruygrok. 'Alan’s trapped by his upbringing. Dora is deeply religious and Frank is an atheist,' leaving this seventeen-year-old questioning his beliefs. He's trying to break free, but in doing so gets it incredibly wrong.
Alan's psychiatrist, Dysart, explains that he’s a boy for whom modern society does not exist: 'He has no friends, no art, no music (apart from commercial jingles that he hears on the television); no friend to give him a joke or to make him know himself more moderately.’ Ruygrok hopes that audiences will see Equus as a story about a very scared and confused young boy on the verge of adulthood.
You can see the Pieter Toerien Productions presented Equus, directed by Fred Abrahamse, onstage at Theatre on the Bay until 20 April. Ticket are available online at Computicket.