Cambridge Arts Theatre
Reviewed – 26th March 2019
“Ira Mandela Siobhan’s physical work is outstanding; it is the best kind of theatrical alchemy to watch him embody this elegant, muscular, powerful animal”
Moments into Equus, we discover that the seventeen year old Alan Strang has blinded six horses with a spike, in the stable in which he works. As the play unfolds, we journey with Martin Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist, into the depths of the boy’s psyche, and come to understand what has led him to commit this atrocious act. In the process of treating Alan, Dysart’s psyche too comes under the microscope, and he examines himself, his marriage, and his profession, and finds himself wanting. Dysart is enraptured by the art and culture of Ancient Greece, and Alan has created his own magnificent pagan religion, headed by the horse-god Equus; the play thus also deals with the theme of spiritual need and desire in the modern world.
The modern world in this play is that of England in the 1970s; so, not so modern any more. And Equus, though still a finely wrought piece of dramatic writing, has not aged well. The prime reason for this is the clear undercurrent of misogyny that runs through the play. Women do not fare well in this piece, whether it be Dysart’s unseen wife knitting for the children she will never have or Alan’s obsessive and frigid Christian mother Dora. Even the lively, open young woman who works with Alan – Jill Mason – is seen to be part of the same underlying problem: these women are ultimately mired in the prosaic, literal, domestic world, and as such can only drag men down, and away from their pure, mythic inheritance. This is an old trope, it is writ large here, and as such begs the question, why is Ned Bennett choosing to tell this story now? In 21st century Britain, we are not short of male myth-makers in love with the classical past – Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson spring to mind for starters.
That said, there are some extraordinary moments in this production, and Shelley Maxwell’s exceptional movement direction certainly deserves every award going. The play opens with a movement sequence between Alan (Ethan Kai) and the horse Nugget (Ira Mandela Siobhan) which sets the tone for the strength and erotic beauty of these scenes throughout. Ira Mandela Siobhan’s physical work is outstanding; it is the best kind of theatrical alchemy to watch him embody this elegant, muscular, powerful animal. Keith Gilmore brings Trojan to life in a similar way, and the world of the horses in this production will definitely be remembered in the annals of theatrical history. Alan’s central nightmare sequence was also extraordinarily powerful; the ideal marriage of physical work, a strong directorial eye and excellent sound and lighting design – special credit here to Giles Thomas for his perfectly judged original score.
Ned Bennett’s direction is not understated. It is an assault. When it works it is breathtaking, but when it doesn’t, the crunch of bone on bone is simply excruciating, as here, in the ill-judged scene in the blue cinema, in which all nuance was lost. He is a force to be reckoned with for sure, and is clearly attracting some fine actors to his projects. Zubin Varla was tremendous as Dysart, holding the stage with every tic and nicotine-stained breath, and Ethan Kai too was compelling – tense with the pressure of so much repressed love and pain until the dam finally burst. The stylisation of the satellite characters was a directorial choice that didn’t work for this reviewer, but it did serve firmly to keep them out of Dysart and Alan’s central planetary dance, which still holds a certain fascination.
Reviewed for thespyinthestalls.com
Photography by The Other Richard
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 30th March then UK Tour continues
Previously reviewed at this venue: