REVIEW: EQUUS (Theatre Royal Stratford East) ★★★★

Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychological classic is revived by director Ned Bennett in a stripped back and energetic version of Equus, that focuses on the conflict between faith and sex. Gone are the design gimmicks and horse props from previous productions, with the focal point moved firmly onto the narrative and in particular the two lead characters.

The story is narrated to the audience by child psychologist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) as he explains how his most disturbing case, a 17-year-old boy called Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), had left him confused and warn out. Strang was sent to hospital following an incident when he blinded six horses and compassionate magistrate Hesther Salomon (Ruth Lass) had convinced her bench that the boy should be treated rather than punished. Dysart then reveals how he investigated the boy’s family, his conservative father Frank (Robert Fitch) and religious mother Dora (Syreeta Kumar), and how he slowly built up enough trust with Alan that he re-enacts the events that led up to his act of violence. Dysart also confides in the audience his own doubts and feelings, how he is confident that he can help the boy but less confident that he should.

Shaffer puts sex and religion are at the heart of Alan’s story as well as Dysart’s doubts. Alan has created his own faith, borrowing from his mother’s Christianity but transferring the role of Christ to Equus, a spirit living in horses that only Alan can hear and relate to. Alan’s obsession is caught up with his burgeoning sense of sexuality and his relationship with the horses at the stable he works at has developed a physical element. Dysart contrasts his own sexless marriage and lack of faith with Alan’s passion and feels guilty about removing this core part of his patient through treatment. Only Salomon, acting as Dysart’s conscience, is there to remind him that the boy is in pain and only Dysart can help.

Shaffer’s writing takes an extremely dark tale but makes it engaging and interesting, luring the audience into wanting to know what motivated the attack. As with his other hugely successful play, Amadeus, the mix of narration and action is well judged and makes the audience feel included in the story. Bennett has kept Shaffer’s 1970s setting, with flares and corduroy on display, but that does not make the play feel dated in any way.

Varla is excellent at displaying the torment between Dysart’s confidence in his abilities and his doubts in his morality. His version of Dysart is full of nervous tics and fidgeting; he seems to be suppressing a powerful emotional explosion that could be triggered at any moment. His cynicism gets most of the few laughs that are available and his timing is immaculate. Up against this emotional confusion Kai provides a brooding, physical presence that contrasts perfectly. As a double act this pairing works impressively, starting as antagonists before becoming confidants.

The rest of the cast provide solid support, in particular Lass gives Salomon compassion and believable morality, and Fitch is suitably stiff as middleclass pretentious Frank. Kumar excels in the moment Dora drops her pleasant façade and allows emotion to overwhelm her.

Movement director, Shelley Maxwell, has done an immense job in turning Ira Mandela Siobhan into the main horse Nugget, his movement gives a fascinating sense of the physicality of the animal without the need for any props. Other cast members also double up as horses but Siobhan and Keith Gilmore have to do the heavy lifting, literally as riders sit on their shoulders. As all the horses are stripped to their underwear it further emphasises the connection between their physicality and their sexuality.

This minimal approach coordinated by Bennett is also reflected in Georgia Lowe’s design. There is no set, just an empty stage surrounded by white curtains so it is left to some excellent lighting design Jessica Hung Han Yun to help transform the story from one location to the next and from one mood to another. This is an incredibly powerful approach that has a huge impact. The recorded music, a string quartet orchestrated by Robert Sword, also does a lot of work in building the mood and then tension as it develops. On a couple of occasions, the level of the music seemed to slightly drown out the dialogue but this might depend on where in the audience one is sitting.

Equus is never going to be a fun, night out, it is deliberately challenging theatre but it is quite rightly regarded as a significant work. In this production, Ned Bennett has not only done justice to the text but has used a new and interesting approach to make it even more engaging. As the production goes on tour, this approach will fit perfectly into whatever space it finds itself in next.

Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Richard Davenport


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