Peter Shaffer's classic play Equus gets the best production of its lifetime...
“Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”
English Touring Theatre has paired up with The Theatre Royal at Stratford East to bring us a thrilling production of Equus which is as brilliantly acted as it is choreographed. I saw the 1973 production of Equus at the National Theatre and remembered the horses played by people with horse heads as being ground breaking in terms of movement. In 2007, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe took the role of the young psychiatric patient who has mysteriously blinded six horses from the stables where he works at weekends.
At Stratford East, the excitement is engendered by the future star Ethan Kai playing Alan Strang whom we will see in the second series of BBC’s Killing Eve. But first to talk about how remarkably good is Zubin Varla as Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist, who examines much about himself during his treatment of the 17 year old boy. From his very first scene, Varla totally convinces and we warm to his personality. The dilemma for Dysart is that in removing the psychiatric condition, “curing” Alan, he will destroy the creativity of his young patient. It is in comparison to his own life which has become dull and humdrum that he questions his role in delivering patients who find it easier post treatment to conform to the norms of society.
The first scene sees Ira Mandela Siobhan as a horse, Nugget. His body is contorted into one with shoulders and arms as straight front legs and rippling muscles as close to a human taking on the shape of a horse and as realistic as I have ever seen anywhere. Rather than relying on the puppets which made War Horse such an emotional experience, or the masks and metal hooves of other Equus productions, movement director Shelley Maxwell, who trained as a dancer, gives the actor/dancers playing the horses an authentic physicality.
An earnest Ruth Lass as magistrate Hester Salomon asks Dysart to take on the case of Alan Strang and his inexplicable crime. Dysart at first resists. His early meetings with Alan Strang find the boy not communicating but singing jingles from television commercials of the 1970s. Dysart’s question, “Which of your parents forbade you from watching television?” seems to hit the right note with the boy. There follows a series of negotiations to get the boy to talk to Dysart.
Dysart interviews Alan Strang’s parents and discovers that the father (Robert Fitch) is very disciplinarian whereas the mother (Syreeta Kumar) is softer and indulgent, but who has muddled in the boy’s mind, children’s stories with her tales of horses and her excessive religiosity.
Eventually Alan Strang starts to talk about his first memories of an encounter with a young horseman (Ira Mandela Siobhan) on the beach who takes Alan for a ride much to his father’s indignation. Ethan Kai’s performance is transfixing as we enter into the mind of this vulnerable figure curled up on the hospital bed who has done the unthinkable as an animal lover.
The simple set features white billowing curtains, a hospital bed and a chair. When the horses are in their stalls we see just a hind leg stretched out from the curtains suspending disbelief.
Act Two sees the full re-enactment of Strang’s relationship with the girl who got him the job at the stables. Norah Lopez Holden, a memorable Desdemona in the English Touring Theatre Othello, plays Jill Mason with great naturalness. No play about psychiatry can get by without an exploration of sex and Dysart finds that Alan turns the tables on him and his turgid marriage.
A scene in a local cinema showing porn films, with a spoiler shock, develops into Alan and Jill’s first sexual encounter in the barn and the tour de force of acting skill when Ethan Kai as Alan Strang abreacts the situation which has brought him under arrest. This scene is unforgettably mind searing with an amazing sound scape. It is a shame that Peter Shaffer died in 2016 and didn’t see this wonderful production from Ned Bennett.
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Ned Bennett
Norah Lopez Holden
Ira Mandela Siobhan
Director: Ned Bennett
Designer: Georgia Lowe
Lighting Designer: Jessica Hung Han Yan
Composer and Sound Designer: Giles Thomas
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Tour Closed at the Yvonne Arnaud on 11th May 2019.
Then, transferred to the Trafalgar Studios for the summer of 2019
The Theatre Royal Stratford East
Gerry Raffles Square
London E14 1BN
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at Stratford East on 21st February 2019