“to praise each element of Equus individually is unfair, because it is the tandem of these parts that makes the production truly divine.”
It isn’t uncommon to see a play emotionally move an audience – to make them feel the pathos or joy that the characters are experiencing. However, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen theatre physically move an audience – to make them lean forward, gasp, and let their jaws hang for extended periods of time. It’s a testament to the power of Equus, then, that the audience member sat next to me – along with many others – barely seemed to even be in their seat, so moved were they by the ferocious and sinewy stallion of a play that was taking place.
Equus centres on Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), a seventeen-year-old boy who blinded six horses over the course of one night. It rests with psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) to uncover the motivation behind the crime, although in doing so he is also forced to interrogate his own beliefs on religion, passion, and purpose. The story is framed chiefly around this patient-doctor dynamic, although a host of other characters are implicated in Martin’s analysis, including Alan’s parents Dora (Doreene Blackstock) and Frank (Robert Fitch), forming a claustrophobic and tense psychological drama. But the true genius of Peter Shaffer’s writing (also of Amadeus fame) is that this paradigm is only one of the levels on which Equus operates; bubbling under the scientific surface is a much more non-secular interrogation of the social and cultural values that cultivated the environment in which Alan could be compelled to carry out such acts as he did. Shaffer’s rhetoric can be transcendentally poetic, weaving metaphor upon metaphor into a textured tapestry that cuts to the very core of what it means to be alive.
The writing never strays into the territory of being overly-ruminative though. Ned Bennet’s visceral and kinetic direction ensures that the intellectual complexities of the play are being constantly physicalised and theatricalised, with the help of Shelley Maxwell’s inventive and raw movement direction; Alan’s bed being used as a trampoline on which he is brutally flung around under a vicious strobe light, for example, serves to manifest the emotional realities of the character. This is heightened tenfold by the soul-searing strings of the sound design (Giles Thomas), the unnerving, subliminal lighting (Jessica Hung Han Yun), and the slick and stripped back set design (Georgia Lowe). The performances, too, are roundly sublime – Varla especially is revelatory, fully owning the hefty language of his many monologues, immaculately delivering the thematic nuance of the speeches with drive and agency. Credit must also go to the transportive ensemble and animal work, as many of the cast also embody horses during the play, particularly Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget.
However, to praise each element of Equus individually is unfair, because it is the tandem of these parts that makes the production truly divine. The quality of the writing exacerbates the direction, which exacerbates the performances, which exacerbates the design, and so on ad infinitum. It constructs a whole reactor of impeccably crafted atoms, all meteorically colliding with each other in a seamless symbiosis that creates the nuclear level of theatrical and spiritual energy that is transferred to the audience and galvanises them to move. Equus is utterly celestial.
“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