Trafalgar Studios, London – until 7 September 2019
The day I went to Equus, the news was full of a schizophrenic 17 year old who threw a small child he did not know from the roof of the Tate Modern. Equus centres on a 17 year old who has blinded six horses in a stables with a hoof pick and is sent by a court for psychiatric counselling instead of punishment.
Social media outrage was instantaneous, and the consensus was the perpetrator should be anything between incarcerated and executed, so it’s curious to see this 1973 play through such a sharpened contemporary prism.
Ned Bennett’s minimalist and thoughtful production is by turns thrilling and dull, sensationally staging the sexual and violent aspects of the story while confining the psychiatrist’s self-doubting soliloquy within drapes of blank white sheeting.
Because the play is told in retrospect inside his hospital office, Zubin Varla as the psychiatrist not only has to examine the state of the boy’s mind, but also to tease out for the audience the actual events like a forensic detective. This impression is not attenuated by the fact that Varla looks and sounds quite like David Suchet playing Hercule Poirot, and a lot of the exposition feels as leaden as Agatha Christie’s.
Varla’s interpretation is more anxious, more introspective and less pontificatingly self-assured than popular revivals like the one with Richard Griffiths in which Daniel Radcliffe famously displayed Harry Potter’s circumcised wand.
What often feels like a two-handed piece has been elevated into an ensemble performance through the six actors who play family, friends, hospital workers and of course the six horses. Most notable, in a stunning masterclass in physical theatre Ira Mandela Siobhan supplies the erotic charge of the boy’s favourite horse Nugget, hands clenched as hooves, nostrils snorting and shoulder blades flexing like an Aintree winner.
Where Equus soars is in the balletic, charged depictions of the boy’s night-time riding to a masturbatory climax, and the event where he blinds the horses. Beyond that, Ethan Kai’s performance is almost millennial in his gym-buffed physicality, constant self-absorption and internalisation of every event.
Theatrically satisfying, philosophically empty – it still leaves hanging the question ‘should thoughts become deeds’ and if they do, are we responsible for them?
until 7 September