Melissa Blease reviews Peter Shaffer’s Equus, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 6 April
“Alright, he’s sick. He’s full of misery and fear. He was dangerous, and could be again. But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it.”
The boy in question is deeply troubled Alan Strang: a teenager whose obsession with horses goes way, way beyond anything even close to a charming pony club crush. The man who envies Alan is his apparently equally troubled psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart, who has been tasked with the unenviable job of finding out why Alan chose to blind, with a metal spike, six horses at the stables where he had a part-time job.
Whether or not this stunning new staging of Peter Schaffer’s 1973 masterpiece Equus – a co-production between the English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East, directed by Ned Bennett – offers any kind of resolution as to why Alan carried out such an appalling act of violence is largely dependent on personal perspective. While you may never want to be put in a position from which to consider that perspective, you really, really don’t want to miss this production of Equus.
On one level, this turbulent tale is not for the faint-hearted: brutality, religion, sex, insanity, sadistic acts – it’s all going on; the ‘Trigger Warning’ caution on the theatre homepage alerting us to full-frontal nudity, violence, discussions around mental health issues and strong language doesn’t offer quite enough of a caveat to the timid, while ‘the smoking of herbal cigarettes’ is the least of anybody’s problems, either for the characters or the audience.
And yet… there’s sharp, blinding light behind all the darkness; compassionate clarity in all the confusion; notions/concepts of love screaming to be heard from beyond the boundaries of what love – in its most prosaic translation – actually means.
There are minimal props, no projections and no set – nothing to distract us from the psychodrama that we’re flung headlong into more violently than a jockey at a Grand National refusal. But there are horses.
Director Ned Bennett, designer Georgia Lowe and movement director Shelley Maxwell deserve enormous credit for their sheer, imaginative artistry in using actors to bring Alan’s objects of desire to life on the stage. From the opening scene, the physicality of the actors’ interpretation of fetlocks, muzzles, and taut, muscular flanks; the loins, crests, hooves et al, all moving, moving, moving in multiple senses of the words, makes their creations as mesmerising, and bewitching as real-life horses can be… and as subtly erotic, discomfitingly alluring and sensually charismatic as horses really shouldn’t be, to those of sound mind.
As Dr Martin Dysart, Zubin Varla is a thoroughly convincing shrink whose life and career has shrunk him – a disappointed, disillusioned bundle of his own neuroses, burdened with his own profound regrets and unrequited passions. Alan’s parents can’t, don’t or won’t do much to help with either their son’s predicament nor his doctor’s onerous assignment: mother Dora (Syreeta Kumar) has her bible to comfort her; father Frank (Robert Fitch) distances and distracts himself from the turmoil that rages around him with his job and his failed attempts at domestic domination; one gets the feeling that, in the strange Strang family – it wasn’t a matter of whether one of them would have a breakdown, but who’d be first.
Supporting and aiding and abetting in turn, Ruth Lass brings welcome breaks of clarity and compassion as Dr Dysart’s level-headed friend and local magistrate Heather Salomon, and Norah Lopez Holden is a cute, sassy breath of fresh air as Jill, the stable girl who finds herself competing with Alan’s beloved horses for his affection
But Eq, to Alan, is more than just a horse. Eq is Alan’s God – his saviour, his supreme being, his King of Kings. To Alan, Eq represents freedom, safety, a sense of identity. And Ethan Kai is Alan Strang: by turns seething with passion and deadened by despondency; subsumed by self-hate, engulfed by his own, volatile ego; driven insane by concupiscence, riddled with shame; one part vainglorious teenager, one part defenceless, confused victim. Kai, a relative newcomer to the stage, is incredible – and Peter Schaffer is a phenomenal playwright.
Equus is the strangest, most complicated love story imaginable, with a deeply disturbing storyline and a harrowing narrative that asks questions most of us never want to consider. Allow yourself to be carried along for the captivating, mesmerising ride, though, because this is theatre at its dazzling, complex, most beautiful best.
Main image: Zubin Varla, Ethan Kai, Syreeta Kumar and Robert Fitch in Equus. Credit: The Other Richard