Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Equus

Peter Shaffer
Bath Theatre Royal and touring
(2008)

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To listen to its legacy of hype and critical acclaim, Equus is a play about a disturbed teenage boy, with a sexual psychosis that threatens to blight his life. It's a story of horse-love, famed for its moments of nudity.

But Thea Sharrock's production casts Shaffer's text into a very different light. Here the private agonies of the boy are brilliantly played out by Alfie Allen: brooding, traumatised and deeply affecting. But, ultimately, Alan Strang's story is secondary. Sharrock almost relegates the boy's story into sub-plot.

Sharrock's Equus is the story of Martin Dysart, the child psychiatrist in the throes of a mid-life crisis which he describes as "career menopause". The work is unfulfilling; his wife is more so. His dreams are two-dimensional, unexplored, academic. His life, he laments, is devoid of passion; his normality nothing worth aspiring to.

John Napier's remarkable, minimalist set is a tribute to the Classical world that occupies Dysart's thoughts, the arch of clean-lined stable doors bringing to mind an ancient amphitheatre. This is Dysart's stage. This is where the drama of his life is played out, like it or not: in his office in a psychiatric hospital for children.

There's nothing specifically uncaring about Callow's Dysart. On the contrary, there is a strong inter-dependence between the doctor and patient; Callow and Allen are utterly convincing in that respect. But Callow's Dysart carries out the job of fixing this boy with just a touch of dispassion: what seems to drive him more is how this boy's life holds up against his own. He is less the caring doctor, and more a man immersed in the self-indulgence of mid-life.

Linda Thorson's magistrate, Hesther Salamon seems to say as much. She dismisses Dysart's endless over-analysis with a flicker of impatience; she indulges him with a salutary shoulder massage, coaxing him to re-focus on what matters most. Some passions, she tells him, are slow burners. His passion has led him to fix troubled children. Alan Strang may be brimming with the passion Dysart finds lacking in himself, but it's left the boy set apart, alone and terrified. She reminds him that Strang needs Dysart's help. Offering that help to a troubled child makes it a life worth living, again, like it or not.

There is something decidedly male/female about the contrasting eye of these two characters. Thorson's Salamon has all the quiet dignity that her office affords her, but is still able to admit to moments of self-doubt. Crucially she has the humanity to see that no matter what Strang has done, he is a just a troubled boy crying out to be saved. To Dysart one feels this is just another case, and he doesn't feel his way through it: he interprets it. He thinks his way through. Ultimately he fixes the boy, and holds him and offers words of comfort and reassurance. But even then, as Alan Strang clings to him, naked, vulnerable and torn apart, it is to his own crisis Dysart gives voice.

"Equus" runs at Theatre Royal Bath until May 10th, and tours to Malvern and Richmond

Philip Seager reviewed this production in Sheffield, as did Peter Lathan in Newcastle

Reviewer: Allison Vale