London, West End Shows

Equus on the West End Stage

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

26 thoughts on “Equus on the West End Stage”

  1. I’ve never thought about seeing it but your write up has persuaded me if it came close by I’d buy a ticket and give it a go…cracking summary
    Xxx

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    1. Thank you so much ❤️ I was in two minds because of my previous experiences with the play in fairness but it was one of the most stunning plays I’ve seen so far (even though that list isn’t too long!)

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    1. I can’t actually emphasize enough how much better it was on stage than reading the book! Although I don’t think scrutinizing it to the level I did in college helped matters! I’m glad I sold it to you – definitely worth a watch if you’re looking for something heavier.

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  2. Ok I was gripped by this post. This is such a fascinating storyline. The online stage production must have been amazing! Thank you for sharing and for adding another item to my reading list xxx

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  3. It is interesting to see the work of people’s imaginations coming to life. Equus sounds interesting – especially with it taking place almost 50 years ago. Glad you enjoyed the show overall! Thanks for sharing the background and your experience!

    Nancy ♥ exquisitely.me

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  4. I absolutely LOVE Equus. I auditioned for it a few years ago, and was bummed that I didn’t get it. I’m absolutely fascinated with the play and its deep dive into the human psyche. I wish I could see this particular production too, cause I’d love to see how it looks without the traditional horse head masks. If only I had the money to travel to London and see it!

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    1. It was a stunning production – literally and that’s not a word I throw around alot. I hope that it comes back to the stage soon in another brilliant adaptation – you’re so right in saying how interesting it is – so multilayered!

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    1. It is truly fascinating! I think it would be easy to be pretty terrible if the production was poor – it’s so heavy it’s important it’s directed and produced with care! It’s crazy how expensive these shows are – I’m always on the lookout for ticket deals on my apps! X

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  5. Yeah it is a bit of an intense one I had to read it for research into creative writing for college (pre-university) probably wanted to write something about horses not sure if I was quite ready to read it or if I finished it but yeah I agree it is an interesting one I should probably reread it again now I’m a bit older lol.

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    1. I was thinking about re reading it to be fair and seeing what I thought this time. It’s been a good ten years now since I read it and since i completely loved the show i thought i might see it differently. I think it helps as well not to be studying it and pulling out bits, highlighting and making notes! Thank you for reading 😊

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  6. Is it weird to say that I genuinely liked it. The production, acting of the professor and the unusual story, I think it was a brilliant piece of art.
    Great post, it definitely justifies the play. Although I can understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

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    1. It’s not weird at all! It was an absolutely production of a play that could have been really terrible if the performers or directors had been different or not as brilliant baa they were. I think it’s a bit like Shakespeare (for me) it’s a play that isn’t ever meant to be read, it is always meant to be performed or watched 😁

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