Trafalgar Studios, London – until 7 September 2019
Equus holds a special place in my theatre-going past because it was seeing the 2007 production with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths which reignited my love of the theatre. Would this production live up to its predecessor?
Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play is based on a real incident in which a teenage boy blinded six horses. In his play, he explores possible reasons for the horrific act through 17-year-old Alan Strang’s (Ethan Kai) sessions with his psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla). Dysart has to build up trust with the troubled teen before, detective-like, he can unearth what motivated him to carry out such a violent and abhorrent act.
Scenes from Alan’s past are re-enacted during his conversations with the psychiatrist. We see his early encounters with horses, his passionately religious mother and atheist, straight-laced father and his growing pathological obsession with horses. It is Alan’s zeal and fervour which makes Dysart question his own life and the purpose of what he does – what is he saving the boy from?
In the 2007 production, during the stable scenes, actors wore metal hooves on their feet giving them an almost equine stature with wireframe horse heads .Here there are no masks, instead it is rather superb and convincing movement performance which transports you to the stable.
Ira Mandela Siobhan takes the lead as Alan’s favourite horse Nuggett, giving a muscular and poised performance, carrying Alan with ease and ‘shaking out’ the horse when each scene is finished. There is little else on the stage – Alan’s hospital bed on occasions – and a mug for Dysart to stub out his cigarettes.
White curtains drape the sides and back of the stage like a veil, pulled aside to allow actors to arrive and leave except for Alan who sets himself apart with less conventional entrances and exits. While there are references which inevitably date the play, the minimalist setting helps focus on its more timeless themes. The occasional heartbeat of a projected image against the backdrop jacks up the tension, horror and haunting feel of the story.
It is a play which questions what is normal vs what is acceptable and who gets to decide. It also questions the purpose of human existence if not to feel passion or desire.
Dysart perceives his own existence as barren compared to the rich tapestry of feelings Alan is experiencing – even if they are confused and ultimately destructive.
Kai’s performance is physical and emotionally raw – you feel his pain. Varla’s Dysart has to be the calming, even voice but it almost gets lost by comparison.
In the context of the story it is ironic that you are drawn more to Alan and his story than Dysart’s own troubles which seem to pale in comparison.
Nonetheless, Ned Bennett’s production expertly draws out the growing anticipation of revelation from Shaffer’s text.
It’s a shame there is an interval to disturb the flow, if it ran straight through I believe it would really take your breath away.
Equus is an intriguing play, part psychological thriller, part mirror to the human condition and this is an almost thoroughbred production.
I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half and it’s two hours and 35 including an interval.
You can see it at the Trafalgar Studios until 7 September.
Some actor spots from the night I was there: Simon Callow, Abraham Popoola and Hobna Holdbrook-Smith
You might also like to read:
Review: The End of History, Royal Court – rebellious children and embarrassing parents in Jack Thorne’s unbalanced new play.
Review: Noises Off, Lyric vs Present Laughter, Old Vic – weighing up the laughs in this Summer’s comedy hits.
From the archive: That time I got to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Jimmy Porter in a rehearsed reading of Look Back in Anger directed by Polly Stenham.
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