“Only connect,” wrote EM Forster (1879-1970), referenced in one of the most engaging plays of recent years, The Inheritance. I’m sorry to report that I struggled to connect with this production of Equus – though it may not be the production’s fault, as it happens. I suspect it has become a play of its time: having premiered at the National Theatre in 1973, the world has in some ways moved on – advances in psychiatry in the last generation has seen an increasing awareness of the importance of mental health, for instance. In other ways, the modern world appears to have regressed, and what was presumably somewhat (if not significantly) shocking back then doesn’t seem to be quite so horrific in 2019.
That said, this country remains a nation of animal lovers, so the actions of teenager Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) retain the power to anger audiences, though this is rather numbed by what (by modern standards, at least) are unresolved psychological issues, themselves not helped by what appears to be a rather repressed upbringing, thanks to an overly religious mother Dora (Doreene Blackstock) and a father, Frank (Robert Fitch), who may not practice a faith but is highly strung enough to believe that all television is inherently evil.
But there have been a number of other shows over the years that have included nudity (indeed, the musical Hair predates Equus) that – at the risk of sounding too Victorian and prudish – I am not sure what having another human body with no clothes on stage adds to the theatrical experience. The staging is relatively bare, relying instead on the script to establish time and place. There are no masks, costumes or props for the horses in the show. A lot of the background sounds were frankly irritating, and what eerie atmosphere the production was trying to create might have been better achieved by haunting silences instead.
Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla), the psychiatrist to Alan Strang, takes a little time to warm to, but thanks to some interesting dialogue with Hesther Salomon (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), the court official who insists he takes on Alan, some insights are gained into the character, who rightly asks questions of his own personality and systems of belief. There’s a sense, too, that this psychiatrist is himself in need of a shrink, rather like the marriage guidance counsellor whose own relationship is on the rocks.
It may well be that adapting Equus too much is simply not allowed (for example, for copyright reasons) but as it stands the play is at least twenty minutes too long, and perhaps needs to be a considerably faster-paced single-act show that explores the same issues of (amongst other things) societal expectations, the role of religion in modern society and a personal sense of meaning and purpose. It’s not entirely dated – consider, for instance, the diversity in this production’s casting – and there are a good few minutes of comic relief where Alan goes to a cinema with significant other Jill Mason (Norah Lopez Holden) to see something seedy, in the seductive sense.
It is worth seeing, particularly for those who haven’t seen Equus before (those who have can take it or leave it). I wouldn’t quite put it on a ‘bucket list’ but if anything, this is a production that provides much to talk about on the journey home, and serves as a haunting reminder of the dangers inherent in obsessive devotion irrespective of the object of such intense passion and desire.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Inspired by a true story, Equus is a gripping and transfixing psychological thriller which sets out to explore 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.
Ned Bennett (Director), Georgia Lowe (Designer), Jessica Hung Han Yun (Lighting Designer), Giles Thomas (Composer & Sound Designer), Shelley Maxwell (Choreographer & Movement Director), Denzel Westley-Sanderson (Associate Director), Anne McNulty (Casting Director).
Robert Fitch (Frank Strang/Horse), Keith Gilmore (Harry Dalton/Nurse/Horse), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang), Norah Lopez Holden (Jill Mason/Horse), Ira Mandela Siobhan (Young Horseman/Nugget) and Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart) will reprise their roles for the West End transfer.
This production of Equus was produced by English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East and is produced in the West End by Trafalgar Theatre Productions.
Booking to Saturday 7th September 2019