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Equus at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review

Ira Mandela Siobhan (Young Horseman,Nugget), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) Credit The Other Richard
Ira Mandela Siobhan (Young Horseman,Nugget), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) Credit The Other Richard.

Peter Shaffer’s 1973 classic Equus is revived by Ned Bennett’s English Touring Theatre Company, and the word out of the horse’s mouth is ‘kink’.

Shaffer’s original text has a great many different allusions and suggestions and each production will interpret the emphasis differently. Bennett has read Equus to be a sexually charged look at the unconscious and the desires that lie within. This play is usually a two-man engagement between the psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) and Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), with the homoerotic undertones of their relationship; Bennett’s interpretation makes Equus a much more familial affair, with equally Freudian forces at play.

Shaffer wrote the play as the imagined conversations between a psychiatrist and his patient, after the real-life story of a boy who blinded 5 horses in a stable in Suffolk. Shaffer imagines that the boy formed some sort of religious association with the horses and as such, the blinding as a kind of ritual sacrifice. Both Dysart and Strang have – perhaps pathological – interests in religion and myth, and the play explores obsession and isolation.

In this production, the circle of attention is widened beyond doctor-patient and gives greater stage time to his parents Frank and Dora (Robert Fitch and Syreeta Kumar). There is a suggestion that Alan’s mother is has a dangerous obsession with worship, but equally that Frank is curiously opposed to it. As a post-mortem of a crime, the psychiatric undercurrents give the play a ‘whodunnit’ kind of feeling, even though we know exactly who did the act, we don’t know who or what motivated it.

The big obstacle (or opportunity, depending on how successfully approached) is the choreographing of the horses. Trying to actually synthesise the appearance and movement of the horses would reveal the comic elements of Shaffer’s text in perhaps unintended ways. Shelley Maxwell wisely chooses to avoid this approach, instead, having Strang sit on the shoulders of the extremely muscled horses, who have elastic straps between their teeth, suggesting a bit. While the straps and tight underwear bring out the kink within Shaffer’s text, the image of Strang (Ethan Kai) sitting on the shoulders of the horses (Keith Gilmore and Ira Mandela Siobhan) just doesn’t quite cut it. It fails to suggest the sexuality of their relationship, and as such, Kai compensates with somewhat disproportionate exclamations of arousal. For such a key element to the production, this area proved to be a misfire.

Varla, as Dysart, gives an extremely impressive performance. His vocal control is nuanced, finding a rewarding mix of frustration and resignation. He manages to find constant intrigue and novelty in a role dominated by long, rambling monologues. It’s a shame that his friend, Hester (Ruth Lass), appears to perform the singular function of being the sympathetic muse to his thoughts; adding another chapter to the canon of ‘female characters who functional solely for the emotional/intellectual improvement of males’. Bennett fails to combat this, having her appear midway through certain monologues, with the effect that the contingency of her character is emphasised all the more.

This production is at its best when dealing with Freudian sexuality and undercurrent desires. But, at times, it feels slow and more thoughtful than physical; a feeling propelled by the slightly disappointing choreographic decisions.

3 Star Review

Review by Thomas Froy

Inspired by a true story, Peter Shaffer’s gripping psychological thriller, EQUUS, explores the complex relationships between devotion, myth and sexuality.

When teenager Alan Strang’s pathological fascination leads him to blind six horses in a Hampshire stable, psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart is tasked with uncovering the motive behind the boy’s violent act. As Dysart delves into Alan’s world of twisted spirituality, passion and sexuality, he begins to question his own sanity and motivations in a world driven by consumerism.

Award-winning director Ned Bennett brings Peter Shaffer’s psychological thriller Equus to the stage in a bold new production of the critically-acclaimed classic.

An English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East co-production.

Director: Ned Bennett; Designer: Georgia Lowe; Lighting Designer: Jessica Hung Han Yun
Composer and Sound Designer: Giles Thomas; Movement Director: Shelley Maxwell
Assistant Director: Denzel Wesley – Sanderson; Casting Director: Anne McNulty CDG
Casting Associate: Lucy Casson

FRI 15 FEB – SAT 23 MAR 2019
Theatre Royal Stratford East

Tour Dates
Theatre Royal Stratford East
15 February – 23 March 2019
Press night: Thursday 21 February, 7pm
Box Office: 020 8534 0310

Cambridge Arts Theatre
26 – 30 March 2019
Box Office: 01223 503333

Theatre Royal Bath
2 – 6 April 2019
Box Office: 01225 448844

Bristol Old Vic
16 – 20 April 2019
Box Office: 0117 987 7877

The Lowry
23 – 27 April 2019
Box Office: 0843 208 6000

Northern Stage
30 April – 4 May 2019
Box Office: 0191 230 5151

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
7 – 11 May 2019
Box Office: 01483 440000


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