Equus

Peter Shaffer
English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East
Trafalgar Studios 1
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Those who imagine the 1960s were a time of wild sexual freedom should see Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus which paints a picture of a deeply repressed set of characters whose energy is being cruelly distorted.

It is pitched as an old-fashioned mystery story, an investigation by the psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) into the reasons that 17-year-old Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) blinded six horses. But this investigator is himself on the verge of a breakdown. He believes his life is far too constrained, his marriage seems dead and he feels he is no longer doing a useful job. Indeed, he dreams of ripping open the bodies of children.

All of this gives an ambiguous edge to his response to Alan. He has no sympathies for the boy’s parents, the father (Robert Fitch) being described as an “old fashioned socialist” who bans television from the home and is constantly harsh to his son. The mother’s religious obsessions inflict on Alan a nightly reading of the Bible’s more gory sections.

No surprise, then, that Alan’s brief exciting horse ride on a beach becomes an alternate obsession for the boy, who starts to regard the horse as a God-like figure.

This production is given a striking stylistic flourish with the choreography of Shelly Maxwell. The very muscular movements of the horse Nugget, played by Ira Mandela Siobhan wearing just shorts and without a horse mask, imply an homoerotic aspect to the moments Alan hugs and strokes the horse.

Most of the time, the performance space is empty of all but the characters and is bounded on three sides by thick grey curtains whose colour suddenly changes with the lighting to heighten the mood of a scene.

But the very modern, engaging presentation does not disguise the rather overlong and not entirely convincing tilt of the play itself.

Dysart is the troubled guide to the wild side in the form of Alan. An unusual psychiatrist, at one point he improbably tells his patient about his dream of slaughtering children.

The other characters are just devices to provide information about Alan and Dysart, not all of which needs to be said at such length. And why depict women as a major source of the crisis with at one end of the spectrum the restrictive religious obsessions of the mother (Doreene Blackstock) and at the other end the free spirit of Jill Mason (Norah Lopez Holden) who on a first date with Alan takes him to see a porn film.

This is an imaginative production of Equus, but the shock value the play once carried has gone and its form and content seem a relic of a long time ago.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna