Touring – reviewed at Bristol Old Vic
Equus was the second part in a trilogy produced by the National Theatre, that turned Peter Shaffer from commercial lightweight West End playwright, into arguably the theatrical Godfather of the seventies. In Ned Bennett’s sensational production for English Touring Theatre, the production shrugs off its potential static literary origins and is remade as a play for today. Arousing and disturbing in equal measures, it is a production that stirs the senses as much as engages the brain.
It’s a little over a decade since the play last hit the headlines as Daniel Radcliffe shrugged off JK Rowling’s fantasy series and revealed his own little Harry Potter, but away from that publicity, the work gets a chance to reveal itself again. Its plot, a battle of wills between a psychiatrist (Zubin Varla) and patient Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), after Strang blinds six horses with an iron spike, is very much of the era, as doctors first began to try to understand the reason behind criminal actions.
Whereas in the original, Strang’s fascination with horses was a subtle metaphor for his own homosexual urges, Bennett’s production places this front and centre. Helped by Jessica Hung Han Yun’s sculptural lighting design, it places the male physique front and centre, defined and graded so every piece of definition is on display for all to see. Like the horses they portray Keith Gilmore and Ira Mandela Siobhan, bring power, poise and delicacy to these equine creatures and make Equus, that so often feels like a two-handed debate, come across as true ensemble work.
Georgia Lowe’s design encases the actors on three sides with white-sheeted walls, invoking some of the claustrophobia that comes with being trapped, both inside the hospital walls but also in a conventional world that struggles to admit outcasts. If Alan’s world is of the beige variety, incorporating an emotionally stunted father and God-fearing mother, the psychiatrist is also trapped in a sexless marriage, spending his evenings looking at pictures of athletes and wishing to find someone he can share his Greek passions with.
Varla does a great job of showing this man envying his young patients soaring passions in a world he feels so constrained in while Kai showcases the young boy confused and conflicted by his erotic agency. Bennett keeps the production fluid and constantly gives us visual to go with the argument. He sometimes over-eggs it, the horror movie jump tactics don’t really enhance the piece although are undeniably effective in getting an audience to jump up as one. Yet what he has demonstrated is a perfect congealing together of contemporary theatre tricks with an idea heavy literary work. It produces a thrilling effect.
Equus plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 20 April.