There’s something about a Latin word that gives it more clout. Like when they create some expensive new cosmetic but 50% of it is tap water, the main ingredient majestically becomes Aqua. No one says aqua! Not since 55 BC. No surprise, therefore, that a 17-year-old mentally ill, sexually confused boy with a horse hang-up would scream “Eq… Eq…Equus!” from his hospital bed rather than the more traditional “Giddy up Neddy”.
Forgive me for that disrespectful introduction, because I actually have a ton of respect for this most significant 20th century play, first performed in 1973 – and I have no doubt it would have faced the wrath of the censor ten years earlier. It’s now been given a pared-down, imagination-filled production from the English Touring Theatre, starting its national tour appropriately enough at one of the most significant theatres of 20th century drama, the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s been a matter of personal shame that I have reached the grand old age of [insert grand old age here] and had never been to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. So when my friend the Squire of Sidcup announced that he wanted to see some “great plays”, and I saw that Peter Shaffer’s Equus was on at that self-same theatre, it was a no-brainer.
I’m sure you know – but in case you don’t, Magistrate Hesther Salomon refers the case of Alan Strang to psychiatrist Martin Dysart as his last chance before being locked up in prison. Strang has been found guilty of blinding six horses at a riding stable; a crime that, even today, stuns the audience into silence when they first hear it. Strang is obstructive, uncommunicative, confrontational, but clearly in need of some meaning to his life; in many ways, a typical teenager. As Dysart pushes and probes into Strang’s emotions and motivations, the truth is slowly revealed of the latter’s destructive obsession with the horse god Equus. But, in comparison, Dysart also considers his own dusty, crusty existence, where he merely observes outside life taking place without having any of his own; and, although comparisons are odious, he becomes jealous of Strang’s passionate and sensual self-expression. At the end of the play, you can draw your own conclusions as to which of them has the brighter future.
This is my third exposure to the dark recesses of Alan Strang’s mind and Martin Dysart’s own personal struggles as his psychiatrist. The first time was in a school group (that’s bold) in 1976, with Colin Blakely as Dysart and Gerry Sundquist as Strang, shortly before it closed – this was the tail end of the original production, I believe. There were bench seats at the back of the stage where we all perched, uncomfortably, but I remember it as a mesmeric experience. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the celebrated 2007 production with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe, which was probably the hottest ticket in town. However, this new production can easily hold its head up high in such prized company.
The simple, stark set adapts itself so well to represent a clinical hospital environment. Sheer white curtains drop down three sides of the stage suggesting those curtains that divide beds in a ward, but also just giving that hint of a white padded room that we associate with mental institutions. A few props, such as Strang’s hospital bed, a basic TV so loathed by his father, and an unexplained hospital trolley carrying six horses’ skulls, are all you need to fill in the gaps. The biggest and most effective prop is Jessica Hung Han Yun’s fantastic lighting design, which incorporates mysterious gloom and blood-red gore, and all moods in between. Giles Thomas’ subtle, disturbing music provides a near-constant undercurrent reflecting Dysart’s state of mind. That alone unsettles us in the audience, because it’s Strang who’s in mental torture, not Dysart, right?
Many of the actors double up their roles to represent the horses, which provides the creative team with the nice problem of how best to portray these strong, kindly equine beauties. Shaffer’s original stage directions required the actors, who wore tracksuits, to don see-through horse masks, putting them on in full view of the audience as part of a deliberate ceremonial procedure. Instead, director Ned Bennett has gone for greater realism in this production. The horse actors just wear shorts; you could consider that the equivalent of a horse’s saddle. The exposure of the strength of the actors’ limbs and torsos directly convey a more powerful impression of the unadorned strength of a horse.
Furthermore, movement director Shelley Maxwell has done an amazing job in enabling the actors to recreate a horse’s neck movements – angular but flowing, strong but vulnerable – and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s performance as Strang’s favourite horse, Nugget, physically blows your mind with its accurate suggestion of how a horse moves. He’s absolutely superb in the role. The climax scene where we see Strang’s attack on the horses also calls for incredibly expressive physical movement, with the agonising blinding of the five horses in the stable followed by Strang’s torturous, mocking, assault dance with Nugget before he too is blinded. It’s both the stuff of nightmares but also incredibly vivid and stunning to watch.
Ethan Kai gives a deeply expressive, no-holds-barred performance as the damaged Strang; initially insolent, gradually more trusting, extremely vulnerable and uncontrollably violent. It’s a brave and memorable performance. Norah Lopez Holden is also excellent as his girlfriend Jill, cheekily and excitedly suggesting a (literal) romp in the hay, and trying to smooth over the waters when it doesn’t go the way she hoped. She’s also extremely good in the hilarious scene set in the sex cinema (which ages the play somewhat). There’s excellent support from Robert Fitch as Strang’s principled-yet-hypocritical father and Syreeta Kumar as his well-meaning mother, Ruth Lass as the concerned Hesther and Keith Gilmore as the no-nonsense nurse and stable owner.
But it is Zubin Varla who stands out, as the professionally high-achieving and personally self-disappointing Dysart. We first see him, huddled in the corner of the stage. You think it’s going to be Strang, because that plays to our preconceptions of a mental health patient, but in fact it is Dysart, revealing from the start his discomfort in his own skin. Wretchedly dependent on his cigarettes, his analytical tactics may well pinpoint precisely Strang’s issues, but they also gapingly reveal his own. Constantly addressing the audience, you can hear the doubt and the essential sadness through both his voice and his body language. I’d be surprised if Dysart has ever been portrayed with greater eloquence or pain. It’s one of those performances where you can’t take your eyes off the actor; first rate throughout.
Equus plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 23rd March, and then goes on to Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, The Lowry in Salford, Northern Stage in Newcastle and Guildford. If you’ve never seen the play, this is a great opportunity to witness for yourself this ground-breaking work. If you have seen it before, I doubt whether you’d ever have peered so closely into Dysart’s soul, as Mr Varla allows us to see. Stonkingly good.
P. S. The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a little island of Victorian delight in a sea of modern shopping centre. Extremely welcoming and friendly, it has a cool vibe, good toilets, and a trendy bar supporting its beautiful, intricate Victorian interior of red and gold. We sat in the middle of row D of the stalls, and, I must confess, I now know the definition of cramped. There’s not a lot of space there! And the stage is surprisingly high, so even from row D you can only just make out the floor level. But the prices are incredibly reasonable and the atmosphere is superb, even for a Thursday matinee. Very keen to go again!
Production photos by The Other Richard