An Interview with Ethan Kai

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Ethan Kai as Alan Strang in 'Equus' (c)The Other Richard

A new production of ‘Equus’ from the English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East is out the gate and - brilliantly designed, skilfully performed and expertly directed - it's one you won't want to miss. On a clinically bare stage, surrounded by dirty white drapes, this ‘Equus’ defiantly conjures something primal and rapacious, exploring how far the human mind can run away with sexual desire and worship. At the centre of this wild waking dream is Alan Strang, played by Ethan Kai. We caught up with Ethan ahead of the production’s UK tour.

Equus is highly psychodramatic and has been unpicked from various angles over the years - what was that like, approaching the role?

I’d heard of the play before - and I’m not going to lie, definitely from when Daniel Radcliffe did his run and everyone went to see him get his kit off. That seems to be how a lot of people know it. But then you dive into the play and you can see why there’s a real history and magnitude to it. It’s such an amazing story, and [Alan] is such an amazing character. I knew from my first audition that it was going to be an incredibly challenging role, not only because of the heightened state of emotion, but because he’s a completely different person to me, he’s had a different upbringing. But it was certainly one I was ready for.

Different in what way?

His sexuality is quite - er - wild, and he has a strict religious upbringing. I knew his life was different to mine and I knew that I’d have to really put myself in his shoes to do justice to it. And it’s set in the 70s, so trying to put myself in that time. But having a director like Ned made it all the easier.

What was it like working with Ned Bennett, recently of An Octoroon fame?

Amazing - he is really something special. I first saw one of his productions a few years ago, called Yen, at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I thought it was brilliant. I didn’t quite connect the dots until I met Ned and finally put it together, and then I was very excited to work with him. He gives his actors a lot of freedom. He’s got his own vision - he was working on this production for a good year before we went into rehearsals, so he had a strong vision, but he was very clear about not wanting to set things in stone and give answers. It’s such a great play, and it doesn’t give you concrete answers or let you know why it’s all happened. Ned really wanted to do justice to that by allowing the audience to make up their own mind. So he allowed us to be very liberal with our choices, constantly switching it up to give an element of play.

It is very physical and playful - how did you prepare for that and how did you keep the momentum going? Are you a dancer?

No, I’m not a mover at all - and if you came to our dance warm-up in the morning you’d know! I’m quite a physical person and I’ve always kept myself in relatively good shape, gone to the gym, stuff here and there. At the first audition for this I was actually told that my shoulders were a little too broad, so from there I stopped training - not that I was super mad into it. When we started rehearsals Shelley [Maxwell], our Movement Director, had us doing circuits in the morning, HIT training, pilates, yoga… that in itself would whip anyone into shape. It was amazing through rehearsals, the stuff I thought there’s no way I could do - holding myself up in these positions - by week three or four, it’s something you can do with relative ease.

You’re not putting away a tray of doughnuts for energy before performances?

Ha - I do have a sweet tooth and I love my food, and I wouldn’t say I’m on a strict diet but you have to keep yourself in decent shape. It’s a physically demanding play - by the end I’m completely out of breath and my last lines are a struggle to get out. It’s tough doing that every night, sometimes twice a day - but that’s what I signed up for and I certainly wouldn’t change it.

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai in 'Equus' (c)The Other Richard

It’s clearly physically demanding - presumably it’s mentally challenging too, given the nature of the piece?

It’s been developed throughout rehearsals, we’ve worked through the play and it hasn’t been a place we got to on day one. I cannot praise Ned highly enough for the support and time he gave me, working on it and understanding where this character is, and what it would require. There’s no set way of getting into that headspace for me - it can be pushing against a wall, rolling around on the floor, doing press-ups, meditating to clear the mind… often you find if you do something for a couple of days it tends to run out and you have to switch it up. The last thing I want to do is get complacent with it. Switching it up and staying hungry with it, that’s the way forward. And enjoying it - even though it’s a tough place to be and not pleasant, it is a great play and a wonderful production with some incredibly talented people. I’m super happy to be a part of it.

Critics have honed in on an element of homoeroticism in this production - what conclusions have you made about the play?

Yeah, homoeroticism is quite present for some people, and I understand that, although that wasn’t something I had at the forefront of my mind going into it. Ned actually said to me, before going into rehearsals, that that would be the way a lot of people would see it, but that we wouldn’t make a concrete decision ourselves. We want people to make up their own minds. A big truth that connects me to it is the idea of normality, and what is normality, what is it to be abnormal. We have a man who’s committed his life to restoring people to normality and erasing uniqueness, and now he looks back and feels he has no passion, nothing beyond the dull world around him. On the other hand there’s this young lad who’s grown up pretty much in his own head, in a fantasy, and it’s brought him chaos. What I found in it was this desire to transcend this boring world that some people don’t feel they belong in - to be transported to something more. For Alan, that’s getting up on a horse and riding away with his god-slave…

It’s interesting you mention “Chaos” - there’s a lot of Ancient Grecian, bestial-man-god mythology mixed up in there too. Did Ancient Greece feature in your research?

Definitely - when we first came into rehearsals, Ned had a mood board of things he wanted to use and there was a load of Ancient Greece in there - I looked a lot into the mythology of Pegasus myself. That was definitely something we wanted to include - the worship, calling back to that world when religion wasn’t a passive thing, it was passionate and chaotic.

What’s next for you, Ethan?

We’re taking Equus on tour to quite a few places up and down the country. I’ve never been on tour before, so I’m looking forward to it! Seeing how it might change for certain theatre spaces, and with different audiences. I haven’t got anything lined up to perform in this year - I have a couple of episodes of some things I’m in, although I don’t know exactly when they’re coming out. But nothing huge in the pipeline - I’m just very excited to keep going with this, finish and then crack on with the next thing… whatever that might be.

UK tour dates for Equus:

Theatre Royal Stratford East

15 February - 23 March 2019

Box Office: 020 8534 0310

Cambridge Arts Theatre

26 - 30 March 2019

Box Office: 01223 503333

Theatre Royal Bath

02 - 06 April 2019

Box Office: 01225 448844

Bristol Old Vic

16 - 20 April 2019

Box Office: 0117 987 7877

The Lowry

23 - 27 April 2019

Box Office: 0843 208 6000

Northern Stage

30 April - 4 May 2019

Box Office: 0191 230 5151

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

07 - 11 May 2019

Box Office: 01483 440000