Wednesday 24th July 2019 at the Trafalgar Studios, London.
Peter Shaffer’s Equus is a dark psychological thriller which delves into the mind of a troubled teenager but also the mind of the man tasked with helping him. In short, Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) blinds six horses. He’s taken by magistrate Hesther Salomon (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) to see Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) in an effort to unlock the motivations behind such a deviant and seemingly random act. The questions are many and the answers few and painstakingly gained. And it’s in the lack of clear answers that the intrigue lies…
Director Ned Bennett captures the heightened tension present between all characters well – the space is a blank page and with it Bennett creates scenes which feel claustrophobic and pressured or distant and fractured with ease. Georgia Lowe’s set is a rugged surface flanked by white curtains soiled where they meet the stage. At first glance, it’s a visual which conjures a combination of a surgical room and an abattoir and it’s a cleverly minimal device, giving Jessica Hung Han Yun’s warped and unsettling lighting and various fleeting projections full force. The work of composer and sound designer Giles Thomas is equally well utilised to emphasise growing tensions and Alan’s shifting mental state.
We meet an odd, insular Alan who defiantly sings to avoid answering questions. Kai takes an extremely demanding role in hand with the fearlessness and intensity that the role itself demands. He plays Alan’s vulnerabilities as an underlying constant to his surface demeanour and humanises a character who could so easily be written off as a callous monster. Varla is a great counter-part and gives Dysart the air of a tragic unhappy professional who has the skill for the job but not the drive or the sense of fulfilment in it. In Varla’s performance we see the popular trope of the disillusioned psychiatrist who is perhaps not much less troubled than the patient.
Dysart investigates everything from Alan’s own responses to parental influences from father Frank (a stoic performance from Robert Fitch) and mother Dora (a principled and forceful performance from Dorene Blackstock) to love interest Jill (a girl-next-door captured beautifully by Nora Lopez Holden). What follows is a retrospective of defining moments in Alan’s life and what’s interesting is that in isolation, no one influence would seem to logically lead to the wounded boy in front of the psychiatrist.
Even in combination, the influences seem to lack the magnitude of something which could lead to Alan’s behaviours. The theory then falls to Alan’s own strange manifestations of external influences – was it this that led to crisis or is there something more? Perhaps it’s all just a big lesson about interfering with the interests and passions of others.
It’s certainly a play of unanswered questions and Dysart not only questions Alan’s actions, behaviours and views but also his own role in attempting to change the boy. He sees merit within flaws and is frequently comparative about his own life – something which dangerously equalises the pair. For me, the shifts in focus to Dysart are too frequent and lack the intrigue of Alan’s story – comparatively, the psychiatrist’s reflections do at times feel wallowing in a way which leads to pockets of disinterest in the narrative.
Shelley Maxwell’s work as choreographer and movement director provides much of the production’s theatricality. Through her movement direction, Ira Mandela Siobhan becomes Nugget, Alan’s favoured horse. With physicality rippling in imitations of the nervous movements and clenching of muscles, he creates a stylised embodiment of the nervous and powerful horse very impressively. The same physicality allows Keith Gilmore to offer a second surprisingly credible equine and both actors also show their acting chops very nicely in additional roles too, with Siobhan playing a very charismatically cocky young rider and Gilmore playing a rather intimidatingly officious nurse (also creating comedy as the voiceover of a dirty movie).
Shaffer’s play explores an area which fascinates most and as we are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges surrounding mental health provision, particularly for young people, it feels even more so. Equus challenges presumptions and interrogates influential forces like organised religion, friendships, families, relationships and impulsive desires. The play delivers as a psychological thriller and engages with its carefully distributed details, encouraging us to theorise and reflect along with the characters we are invited to study. In this production the cast and Kai in particular deliver an intense and intriguing story with all the drama it demands. It’s accomplished production well worth the punt.
Equus plays at Trafalgar Studios until September 7th 2019 and you can find tickets here.