Epsom Downs

 

‘Don’t be fooled by lush green curves in the countryside. I am dangerous. I am a bad-tempered
bastard. On me the second rate burst blood vessels. First, I am a killer gallop, up a long hill. Then I
sweep down, curving to the left, to the real ball tearer, a viscous left hand corner, Tattenham Corner.
Only the fast, the brave and the beautiful get anything out of me …’

So speaks The Derby, as characterised in Howard Brenton’s play Epsom Downs.

It is the only dramatic work to thoroughly embrace the world of racing. More specifically, the world of
Epsom and Derby Day – the crowds, the characters, the posh, the common, the jockeys, trainers and
bookies, the professionals, the Kermit Frog salesmen, the gamblers. the owners, the stable lads, the
drunks

The Derby Day 1856-8 William Powell Frith 1819-1909

And the horses.

There are over 100 different parts. Actors play horses, and they talk.

It was Brenton’s best play. He was one of the largely untalented Oxbridge generation of intellectuals
who, armed with massive subsidies and childish left-wing sympathies, signalled the beginning of the
death of English theatre. He was responsible for the attention-seeking Romans in Britain,
unsuccessfully sued by Mary Whitehouse for Gross Indecency in 1982. Possibly the reason Epsom Downs
works is that he didn’t actually write it.

Joint Stock theatre company believed in research and improvisation. Field trips were made to
racecourses, real people were met and talked to. Back in the rehearsal room it was acted out and
recorded and a script achieved. Brenton collated.

Humanity, detail and humour therefore survive. Actors care much more for truth than politics, and
they love jokes.

From the paddock a horse addresses the audience:

‘I am a Derby outside chance …’ and goes on to tell us how much he loves his goat. Tossing his head,
he explains he will ‘kick the place down’ if he doesn’t get it.

‘Stop thinking about your bloody goat’, says the Stable Lad.

In the original production, the actors playing the horses were naked. While this may have appealed to
Brenton’s repressed fantasies, it isn’t as gratuitous as it sounds.

Said actors wore bridles only and stood upright, with immaculately attired jockeys on their shoulders.
The very legitimate question for a costume designer was how do I dress a horse? I think they got the
answer right.

Nudity on the stage had been commonplace since 1968. Until then the Lord Chamberlain, a
department within the Royal Household, held the right and obligation to censor any play or show due
to be presented to a live audience. His history is inglorious. In the 1930s texts critical of Nazi Germany
were banned on the grounds that Hitler was a friend. This may have reflected the sympathies of
Edward, then Prince of Wales.

By the 60s, theatres had begun declaring themselves private clubs to escape the Chamberlain’s
jurisdiction, and writers like Joe Orton had taken to publishing their plays as written, then printing the
required amendments in the index.

The power was given up without a struggle.

Freedom was celebrated. Hair opened at The Shaftsbury Theatre in London in late ’68. It had begun in
America as an anti-Vietnam protest, with songs, nudity and profanity, and was notable for inviting the
audience onto the stage to dance with the cast.

Oh! Calcutta! followed soon after. A series of sketches with swear words, dirty jokes and startled girls
(and boys), wondering where their clothes had gone. The title was derived from the French phrase O
quel cul t’as,
 which translates as ‘what a nice arse’.

The truth was that audiences, confronted with nakedness, tended to forget what they were watching
and merely stared unblinking at the naughty bits. Actors were often just as distracted. I remember one
farce, set in Belfast, in which the lead spent two hours naked. At the start he was normal size but that
soon changed. I was transfixed as his publicity-shy member involuntarily but gradually sought escape
from scrutiny.

I think it was a farce. I did my laughing in the pub afterwards.

After a few years theatre began using its new liberty with more circumspection. In revivals, Brenton’s
horses wore tights.