EQUUS AT THE ARTS THEATRE
I last saw Equus in Manchester in 1979 and it has stayed in my mind ever since as a play of almost exhausting intensity, raw passion, visceral physicality and symbolist power. It felt very new back then – an age when playwrights such as Peter Shaffer were riding on the back of a new golden age of British theatre. Would it feel as fresh forty years on? The new production by Stratford East and English Touring Company raised some initial doubts but gradually the magic unrealism of the play began to work its spell.
Shaffer’s play picks up the shattered pieces of plot after a brutally savage attack on a stable full of horses. Alan Strang (one more ‘e’ for ‘strange’ but he is already that), a highly troubled teenager struggling to find his identity against a devil-fearing mother and a repressed, cold father, has deliberately blinded the horses.
Ethan Kai plays Alan with a brittle intensity – a boy-man on the brink - but of what? He is a lost soul in an increasingly alienated world of TV adverts and empty consumerism. There is in Ned Bennet’s outstanding production a powerful homoerotic undercurrent manifested in some quite brilliant physicality especially in the portrayal of horses. Ira Mandela Siobhan with elastic movements and macho muscularity was especially impressive in bringing a great equine beast to life.
At the centre of the play Dysart, Alan’s psychiatrist, acts as narrator though he is far from a neutral figure. Uncannily reminiscent of a younger David Suchet, the shrink’s part is brought to life by Zubin Varla through a series of long monologues and combative sessions with his horse-maiming patient. Set within a giant version of white hospital screens, the action of the play is packed with theatrical magic unrealism as Alan slowly reveals his actions and motivations to the increasingly unsettled psychiatrist. Dysart clad in 1970s beige and sporting a fragile pair of specs, is a man for whom the only excitement left in life is an annual trip to Greece to commune with the old gods and the centaurs of Argos. He seeks but cannot find. Maybe the disturbed boy with his horse obsession can help Dysart find a way to the Olympian heights of existence?
Shaffer’s dialogue – sparse, mythic and often poetic, is full of classical allusion and obscure language. There’s a touch of show off erudition (very 70s) but not enough to dampen the eruptive power of the main themes. The production faces head on issues such as our loss of religion and the power of worship. Add in a good dollop of sexual repression and a desperate search for life’s meaning.
It is not an easy watch and many of the scenes involving a fully naked Alan and chariots of winged horses are almost overwhelming in their intensity. Hats off here to some outstanding lighting design, a deeply unsettling musical underscore and some astonishing ‘hey presto’ transformations such as the sudden appearance of a stage full of real sand castles. With incredibly moving and full-on performances, this is a production of the highest quality – one not to miss and certainly not to wait forty years to see again.