DramaLondonReviewWest End

Equus – Trafalgar Studios, London

Writer: Peter Shaffer

Director: Ned Bennett

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

We hear a lot about the psychology of a play and the relative success of a particular staging based on how well the director and cast have constructed the emotional, physical and intellectual world in which the characters exist. Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus is even more unusual dealing with the practice of psychiatry itself, a case study of the profession and its role in aiding or manipulating the minds of its patients. Frequently performed, a new production gallops into the Trafalgar Studios by way of Stratford East Theatre courtesy of the English Touring Theatre Company.

Martin Dysart’s professional frustration as a child psychiatrist is temporarily alleviated by the arrival of 17-year old Alan Strang, referred by a local magistrate after the boy is charged with blinding six horses in a single night. As doctor and patient navigate their way to a mutual understanding, to uncover why horse-loving Alan committed this crime both must face uncomfortable truths while Dysart begins to question whether a cure is really what Alan needs.

Shaffer’s play is concerned with the physical and mental effects of desire and religion on the developing human mind. Like twin souls, the effect of one on the other is indivisibly entwined in Shaffer’s characters as Alan’s interior struggle is informed by his mother’s overt Christianity crashing against the atheism and sexual repression of his father. These two forces vie for Alan’s soul, manifest in his paganistic worship of horses which starts to dominate his mind and the expression of physical desire that triggers his mental collapse.

The English Touring Theatre Company presents the action in a white-curtained room, a clinical dream-space that suggests an empty no man’s land between the various versions of reality at work in the play. At key moments Jessica Hung Han Yun uses lighting and shadow to create Alan’s charged experiences, flashes of red and blue that are initially almost imperceptible but with additional strobing build to nightmarish proportions. Alan may be the focus, but Georgia Lowe’s design feels like Dysart’s shrouded brain, a fog only he can tear through once Alan enlivens his daily routine.

Director Ned Bennett also makes use of physical theatre forms to powerfully imply the horses in the story, working with Choreographer & Movement Director Shelley Maxwell to create dance-like movements full of elegance and strength. Gone are the suggested masks of Shaffer’s stage directions and in their place the extraordinary physical feats of Ira Mandela Siobhan and Keith Gilmore who whinny and trot convincingly while carrying actors on their shoulders.

Shaffer’s play is a very talky in the first Act, lining up the witnesses and interviews like a detective case and amidst all the inventive staging these conversations can seem a little flat and samey as your attention wanders. But the sparring use of the more interesting story-telling techniques in the early part of the play pays off in Act Two as Bennett build-up to the intensity and shattering drama of Alan’s crime, utilising Giles Thomas’ Composition and Sound Design to change the tone and increase the tension.

Zubin Varla’s Dysart has the softly-spoken manner of an Open University Professor, a little shambolic and already questioning his calling at the start of the play. There’s a permanent undertone of confined emotion that Varla occasionally allows to escape and as his relationship with his patient deepens, there’s very little holding Dysart together as his own purposelessness and loss of faith in himself and his ability to feel crumbles under the intensity of Alan’s beliefs.

For much of the play, Alan has little to do but be sulky and difficult which Ethan Kai delivers well, a typically unresponsive and nervy young man protecting himself against the world. As he responds to treatment the sullen tone doesn’t entirely evaporate but in the conclusion to Acts One and Two Kai conveys the frenzy and mania of his illness as he enacts his story.

There are aspects of Shaffer’s play that are starting to show their age, the sketchy female characters and the rather self-conscious structure, but Bennett’s interpretation feels fresh, with design and staging in particular setting this apart from previous productions. And as one of the few plays to focus on psychiatry, Equusstill asks relevant questions about the consequences of restraining the mind.

Runs until:  7 September 2019 | Image: Contributed

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