Following my summer spent seeing as many shows as I could, one of the most intriguing shows I witnessed was a disturbing yet hypnotic production of one of the most controversial plays I had ever come across in school.
Equus is a play written by Peter Shaffer in the early 1970’s, detailing the story of a psychiatrist attempting to connect with a teenage boy, who just happens to have a pathological religious fascination with horses.
Disturbingly based on a true events, involving a 17 year old boy blinding six horses, the initial intention of the writer was to explore a fictional ideology of what may have caused the young boy to commit such atrocities, without having any knowledge of the specifics.
A play I studied in drama class at the age of 17, I was familiar with the story, which focuses mainly on Dr Dysart, portrayed by Zubin Varla, who tries to make sense of Alan’s actions whilst, like any good literary character, trying to find his own reason for being.
Originally on the London stage in the 70’s, it later transferred to Broadway with Anthony Hopkins in the role of the psychiatrist, later being played by Richard Burton as well. In 1977, there was also a movie adaptation of the play. The production of Equus that I witnessed was showing in a limited run, last year in late summer, at the Trafalgar Studios in central London.
Without wanting to make it sound like a rewrite of my college essay, there are some interesting themes in this play, which made me want to see a stage production of it so long after studying it. One of the most prominent themes is that of religion. In this play, horses are the religion and are presented as gods, with unconventional worship being just as important as that in mainstream religions.
Other themes in this super intense play are sexuality, pain, freedom, mental health and blame. Written in an age where mental health was not really a recognised thing, the play manages to remain relevant today, where discussions of mental well-being are becoming more common. The therapist in Equus looks into the nature versus nurture debate and examines ideas of whether the actions of the Alan, played by Ethan Kai, are down to himself only or are the responsibility of his parents for their conflicting ideas of how best to raise their son.
One of the key themes in this is the question of what is ‘normal’ and whether this is determined by society or by individuals. Equus presents the idea that normality is not always the best option and that madness is another idea which is constructed by people in the world around us.
It’s based on a real-life case in Hampshire where a young stable boy blinded horses, but the director of this production, Ned Bennett, obtained permission from playwright’s estate to forego the standard horse head masks. This was one of my favourite parts of the production.
The actor playing Nugget, the lead horse in the play if you like and key object of equine obsession, is sensationally brilliant. It is very difficult to be that good whilst wearing only tight boxer shorts but Ira Mandela Siobhan managed it perfectly. He does not pretend to be a horse or even impersonate a horse. Somehow, he simply is the horse. It’s an extraordinary achievement and beautifully choreographed by Shelley Maxwell.
Alan’s parents are literally just that; mum and dad. The versions of Dora and Frank Strang we see in this production are outlines of characters who are never excessively developed and seen only through the eyes of their son which works really well on keeping the focus on Alan and his therapist.
Snapping up tickets for only £12, I am thrilled I got to see Equus the way it was intended – on the stage. Like with many plays, it is simply meant to be seen and not read. On at Trafalgar Studios, the theatre is notoriously uncomfortable and this time was no different. The seats are set out like padded benches which, after about 30 minutes, inevitably leads to numb-bums. This physical discomfort viewers are in only added to the uneasy atmosphere unfolding on stage, from the second you sat down, even before in some instances as one of the characters was tensely sitting on stage for several minutes whilst people took to their seats.
When I wrote my college essay on this play, I distinctly remember spending a whole paragraph writing about the doctor’s fascination with ancient Greek mythology and likening it to Apollonian and Dionysiac ideas – something I am not going to do here, but it did definitely make me smile thinking about it so I thought I would pop that in just before I finish this post. Equus is that heavy.
This production has now closed on the West End, but have you seen or read it before? Or perhaps it is something you would be interested in seeing? Please let me know in the comments below.