Reviewed – 15th July 2019
“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.
Reviewed by Tom Francis
Photography by The Other Richard
Trafalgar Studios until 7th September
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: