Peter Shaffer’s Equus begins with a disturbing image: a seventeen-year-old boy, Alan Strang, has been referred to the care of renowned child psychiatrist Martin Dysart after blinding six horses at the local stables. And things don’t get much easier from there in this intense drama; Dr Dysart slowly pieces together what led the young man to commit such an act, but questions as he does so if treating Alan will actually help him, or only condemn him to a life as empty and meaningless as the doctor’s own. Touching on themes of religion, sexuality and more than one form of mental illness, the play asks some difficult questions and frequently makes for unsettling viewing, and yet Ned Bennett’s production remains utterly compelling from start to dramatic finish.
The cast of eight are left completely exposed on Georgia Lowe’s barren, starkly lit stage (though don’t let its simplicity fool you – it still produces a few surprises later on). Fortunately, the performances of all involved are engrossing enough that the audience’s attention never wanders, despite more than one lengthy monologue. Ethan Kai and Zubin Varla take centre stage as patient and doctor – the former a picture of wild and confused defiance, the latter of quiet, building desperation – locked in a battle that both know neither can win. Though the play’s core plot is to solve the mystery of Alan’s crime, there’s just as much to unpick in Dysart’s surprising response to the latest in a seemingly endless line of troubled adolescents.
Alongside the two excellent leads, there are strong performances across the board, with Ira Mandela Siobhan particularly mesmerising as Alan’s favourite horse, Nugget. The detail, power and physicality in his portrayal, combined with Shelley Maxwell’s exquisite choreography, is such that there’s no need for any masks or costumes to convince us we’re looking at a magnificent stallion – and by dispensing with these, Bennett further blurs the lines surrounding Alan’s confused sexual desires.
Though the play at times leans towards becoming text-heavy, with Dysart in particular reflecting at increasing length on his own misery, in fact the production strikes a good balance that prevents it ever becoming dry or losing its energy. More than once a character’s monologue is punctuated by light and sound effects that have obviously been designed (by Jessica Hung Han Yun and Giles Thomas respectively) to unsettle our minds and, occasionally, our nerves. The tension creeps up as we draw closer to the play’s climax, and although the actual blinding of the horses is enacted without a trace of gore, the moment of impact still hits powerfully home, both on and off stage.
And besides – it’s not such a trauma to listen to Shaffer’s words, especially when they include such hauntingly evocative gems as, “A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave… Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles.” Lines like this one, a potent reminder of how easily and arbitrarily mental illness can strike, ensure that despite being close to 50 years old, Equus continues to have plenty to say.
Equus is at Trafalgar Studios until 7th September.
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