Writer: Peter Shaffer
Director: Ned Bennett
Reviewer: Sam Lowe
The late Peter Shaffer’s psychological thriller, Equus, is still a notable play. It resonates with a modern audience, even though it was written in 1973. An English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East production, Equus is reinterpreted by award-winning theatre director, Ned Bennett. This is exceedingly visual, physical theatre combined with naturalistic acting and elements of expressionism. It uncovers the complex relationships between desire, loyalty, myth, and sexuality.
“With one particular horse called Nugget, he embraces”, signifies the beginning of a painstakingly layered and fascinating story about a teenager called, Alan Strang. His pathological worship for horses leads him to blind six of them with a metal spike in a Hampshire Stable. Cue, Dr. Martin Dysart who has been given the daunting task of dissecting the motive behind the boy’s severely violent attack. He has no idea of what’s to come. As Dysart investigates Strang’s world of warped worship and pious, he unintentionally psychologically evaluates his own mind and cognizance. Questioning the meaning of his life in a consumerist world.
Zubin Varla plays Dysart in quite a novel way. Varla brings out his lifeless outlook on life. He’s not so much cynical, it’s more highlighting his lack of motivation, stuck in a dead-end profession where he starts to question whether he is restoring children back to normality or whether he is sacrificing parts of them which make up their idiosyncratic selves. This Dysart is calm, at least on the surface, nothing has really fazed him… until now. His interpretation of a passionless Dysart, however, doesn’t compliment the performance of the numerous soliloquies. As a result, Shaffer’s emotionally charged, rich and multi-layered text just doesn’t have the same impact in comparison to previous encounters with this play. You could interpret there is a subtle romantic relationship between Dysart and Hester (Ruth Lass) but that doesn’t come across in this production. Hester appears somewhat one dimensional as their interpretation only seems to focus on the professional relationship between the characters.
Portraying Strang is Ethan Kai. His madness is never overperformed. The script offers Kai a chance to embody a diverse, emotionally-complicated and volatile character. Which, he does. At the same time, despite the extraordinarily disturbing incident which takes place, there is a hint of normality to Kai’s Strang. It’s fascinating and disconcerting all at once. Completing the cast is: Robert Finch, Keith Gilmore, Syreeta Kumar, Norah Lopez Holden, and Ira Mandela Siobhan.
A metaphorical set design has been drawn up by Georgia Lowe. We could be in a room, in a psychiatric ward, with ghostly white curtains. It could be a mind prison for Dysart and Strang. Perhaps, it’s a menacing mind palace? Either way, the minimalist design enables the production to quickly switch from one location to the next: from Strang’s household to his repressed memories and everything in between. The use of real sand, a working hoover and TV makes for a lovely contrast to the imagined and the intangible.
Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting is concerned with sudden and frightening contrasts. Bursts of colour, light and projection create a cinematic feel. After having a think, this effectively references back to the mind-numbing nature of television. Shaffer raises the notion that all TV has to offer is mindless violence, subliminal messaging and adverts in a money-making and profit-driven world. Where is the meaning? Young people today worship false idols and celebrities or are hooked to social media and phones. What is life-affirming?
The physical theatre choreography is performed with precision and the language of movement emulates Strang’s mental entanglement as twisted spirituality, passion and sexuality all roll into one awareness. A very good, relevant and visual thriller.
Runs until 27 April 2019. | Image: Contributed