Trafalgar Studios, London – until 7 September 2019
Peter Shaffer’s shocking, disturbing and provocative thriller Equus has galloped back into the West End this week with an electrifying revival from Ned Bennett. The English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East co-production has already won critical acclaim during a regional tour earlier this year. Now this intense psychological drama has transferred to the Trafalgar Studios for the summer.
Equus has been kicking up a storm ever since it bolted out of the stable an astonishing 35 years ago. It has unsettled and intrigued audiences ever since. Bennett’s piercing use of light and sound is unnerving, like forcing subliminal darts into the eyes of theatre-goers already appalled and enthralled by this dark and tragic story.
Parents have long wondered about what goes on in the mind of hormonal-crazed teenagers. Something happens at about the age of 13 and a fully rounded human being doesn’t emerge for nearly a decade. And, as a society, we are equally uncomprehending when those same youths, almost always teenage boys, commit horrific acts of violence.
How often have we heard about bewildered parents who don’t understand why teens have stabbed others over a postcode, a friendship or a wrong glance? Young Alan Strang’s monstrous crime, in Equus, is to blind six horses in a stable. No one knows why.
Worse, he won’t speak or explain himself. Instead he sings TV advertising jingles – very badly – almost spitting out the tunes in an outpouring of bile and hatred. It is left to his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, a man with considerable problems of his own, to get to the heart of Alan and try and repair the damage inflicted on him by his parents.
Zubin Varla’s anguished narration, aided by virtually chain-smoking throughout, reveals Dysart to be burdened by a career’s-worth of nightmares from the disturbed kids he treats. And while he may be Alan’s only hope of being able to lead a regular life he is also the man who will destroy the teen’s spirit, independence and imagination.
Director Bennett doesn’t mess around with a set but has invested his time in creating a visceral production with bang-on lighting and sound that makes you jump out of your seat and recoil in horror. The flashback scenes featuring the horses are played to considerable effect by semi-naked actors, wearing little more than trunks.
The muscular Ira Mandela Siobhan superbly mimics Alan’s favourite stallion called Nugget.
He flexes and flinches, snorts and stamps his feet, body pops and prances. It’s very impressive.
Ethan Kai, as Alan, is your standard angry young man, albeit one with a unique set of problems.
He scowls and glowers, simmering with resentment, but, surprisingly, it’s Dysart at the emotional heart of the story.
Alan’s redemption is as much to do with saving Dysart as it is about understanding the psyche of an adolescent.
Equus runs in Trafalgar Studios 1 until September 7.
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