Equus is a breathtaking, startling, and gripping play delivered brilliantly by a compelling cast.
Introduced to a tableau of boy and horse by world-weary psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla), from the off, I was struck by the beautiful physicality of Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget. His movement – not quite dance, not quite not-dance embodied the pride, beauty and power we associate with horses.
But soon enough it is Ethan Kai’s Alan Strang that draws the audience’s attention as he and psychologist Dysart match wits. At times confrontational, at times manipulative, always compelling it is the dynamic between these two that makes the play unmissable.
Written in 1973, Equus has had all the hallmarks of a classic Greek tragedy. It explores how religion can warp sexuality and how sexuality can warp religion and the impact both can have on a damaged and vulnerable psyche. The themes are universal even if their conclusions are taken to a shocking place. But it also has some well-realised hallmarks of its time. Psychotherapy which had a much higher cultural prominence then than now, porn cinemas which have largely been killed of first by a video then by the internet, and adult fears of television are now replaced by fears of the online.
At times the writing can seem pretentious. Certainly in the case of Dysart. But as his own psyche is stripped bare, we are shown that he is fully aware of the superficiality of his attraction to the “primitive Greeks” and his previous spouting off is revealed as part of his own psychological defences against his own demons. Ones that may be constrained, but that torture him almost as much as Strang’s.
It is this clever unpeeling of the psyche that makes the writing of Equus so interesting. Nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. So a simple love story between Alan and girlfriend Jill – played with a perfect mix of innocence and sexual enthusiasm by Norah Lopez-Holden – is, in fact, a catalyst for the darkest moment of Strang’s life.
The play is staged starkly with few props, a very spare set and clever lighting and use of a curtained backdrop intimating different settings. One moment a stable, next to a beach, then a lower-middle-class living room. This serves to highlight the physical performances that bring the horses and Strang’s attraction to them to life.
The play asks more questions than it answers. There isn’t a satisfactory answer to why a single encounter in Strang’s formative years led him to his dark place of sexual and religious fervour. Do we blame the religious mother? The cold father? Is Strang’s warped sexuality enough of a cause for his violent act? All this is left for the audience to ultimately decide. We aren’t given easy answers and this isn’t an easy play.
Equus doesn’t use shock simply as an attention grabber. The shocks here – from the lighting design (that will make you jump) to the storyline are here to make you think. To pull you into Alan’s madness and Martin’s morose examination of it. The nudity, when it comes, is by that point the least shocking aspect of the production. Ethan Kai is so compelling an actor to watch that you barely notice it though watching him portray the bitterness and anguish of the moment.
Equus is an exceptional play and this is an excellent production of it. Thought-provoking from beginning to end, I feel examined, enlightened and enervated.
- By Peter Shaffer
- Cast: Ethan Kai, Zubin Varla, Norah Lopez Holden
- Warning: Play contains flashing lights and nudity.
- Running Time 2 hours 40 minutes including interval
- Theatre Royal Stratford East (in collaboration with the English Touring Theatre)
- Dates: Until 30th March
- Time: 7.30pm (Weds and Sat 2.30pm matinées)