Writer: Peter Shaffer
Director: Ned Bennett
Reviewer: Alice Fowler
Peter Shaffer’s masterpiece begins with a disturbing question: why has 17-year-old Alan Strang blinded six horses with a metal spike? Controversial when first performed in 1973, Equus retains its power to shock. English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East’s highly charged production explores the patient-psychiatrist relationship and asks: exactly what is normal?
Zubin Varla’s psychiatrist is a man on the edge, confessing to the audience his doubts about his work and marriage. Tasked with helping Strang (Ethan Kai), he delves into the boy’s life to explore what led to his horrific act.
A cast of eight play both people and horses: the horses portrayed by the muscularity of the human back, the flexing of a leg, the flare of eyes and nostrils. We see a seminal moment in the young Alan’s life when, on a beach, a passing rider stops and invites the boy on to his horse. His repressive father, appalled, pulls him down, while his mother – who loves horses – looks on in reproach.
The tensions in Alan’s upbringing are fully explored. His father (Robert Fitch) is buttoned-up: socialist, atheist, a man who forbids his son from watching television. His mother (Syreeta Kumar) is from a higher social class, religious, more indulgent of her son. In this divided home, Alan’s fixation with horses grows. A painting of Christ is replaced by a picture of a horse which, in his mind, becomes a horse-god (Equus, or ‘Ek’). There are strong sexual overtones as the boy takes the ‘manbit’ into his mouth and finds an ecstasy with horses that, with the stable girl Jill, eludes him.
Designer Georgia Lowe’s white-curtained set is effective, transforming from consulting room to stable yard, with shadowed horses standing in their stalls. Lighting – flashes of red, green, blinding white – add to our sense of nightmare and disturbance.
Equus is a story of worship and repression and the shifting boundaries between what is ‘normal’ and what is not. As Alan demands of his psychiatrist: ‘At least I galloped, did you?’ Passion of any kind, Shaffer suggests, may be better than none at all.
Runs until 11 May 2019 | Image: Contributed