A distant, pre-TV ancestor of debasing reality entertainments such as Big Brother, the Depression-era dance marathons made an entertainment spectacle from human misery.
For days and weeks at a time, contestants would dance until they dropped (occasionally dead) in the hope of winning cash prizes, free gifts, a splash of short-lived fame or a commercial sponsorship. It’s not hard to draw a line to the online gyrations of the influencer culture of today.
This production eloquently captures that desperation in a play by Ian Sinclair based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – itself the inspiration for Sydney Pollack’s still powerful 1969 film of the same name.
The focus is resolved on to just six characters. All take turns in playing the important seventh – the seedy promotor/huckster Rocky. The setting is now Sydney, 1932, in the days of the “Hungry Mile”.
Chris Baldwin’s set evokes an end-of-the-pier pavilion perfectly. Metal bars separating audience from performer amplify a sense of the gladiatorial. A video screen (one of a few deliberate anachronisms) counts the passing days and the steady decline in the number of contestants. Sound designer Zac Saric’s soundtrack becomes increasingly woozy as the dancers succumb to physical and mental exhaustion.
Directed by Tait de Lorenzo, the ensemble delivers a strongly physical production. Brontë Sparrow is the apparently unbreakable, largely dislikable Glory; Justin Amankwah is her inexperienced dance partner, Rob; Nathaniel Langworthy is the jolly sailor Vee; Charlotte Otton is a would-be starlet, Jacqui; Tom Dawson and Caitlin Doyle-Marwick play a young battler couple working the dance marathon circuit in the hope of a win.
Horses makes for a vividly grim and instructive spectacle – one as relevant to these times as McCoy’s novel was to his.