Ira Mandela Siobhan as the horse Nugget, and Ethan Kai as Alan.
Equus by Peter Shaffer – Trafalgar Studios, London
Ned Bennett’s production of Equus reveals a play that is still troubling and involving as it must have been when first staged at the National Theatre, in 1973. A psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, attempts to communicate with a teenager, Alan Strang, who has committed a horrific crime. Their conversations, and scenes from Alan’s past, are played out in an empty space surrounded by white curtains – an interior space invaded by memories that burst through the curtains, or slide out suddenly from under them, for example four sandcastles that instantly transform the scene into play’s central memory on a beach. The designs, by Georgia Lowe, help the audience see the isolation of both Alan, the patient, and Martin, the doctor, whose coffee mug surrounded by an open expanse of stage is the only indicator of authority.
Martin, in a remarkable performance by Zubin Varla, is the epitome of a buttoned up, professional of his era, on the brink of collapse and smoking incessantly as the only way to stave it off, while longing for Ancient Greece. He sees in Alan, whose inexplicable blinding of six horses horrifies everyone, a reflection of himself. Martin is increasingly oppressed by normality, and starts to believe that helping Alan to become ‘normal’ could be worse, even, than what Alan has done. Ethan Kai brings a thoroughly believable teenage uncertainty and intensity to Alan, but Bennett’s production highlights a theme that seems to have been missing from previous versions. By showing the horses – usually played by actors in masks – as muscled and gagged hunks of sexuality, it becomes clear that Alan’s repressed attraction to men is at the play’s core.
Alan’s family is tied up by religious and social constraint, and there is a delightfully awkward scene in which Alan and his girlfriend Jill (Nora Lopez Holden) run into his mortified father (an excellent Robert Fitch) at a porn cinema. The moment that haunts him, standing between him and ‘normality’ and causing him to mutilate the horses, who have seen his failed attempt to have sex with Jill, was on a beach. A man riding a horse swept him into his arms and onto its saddle. Horses, whose flanks he strokes and whose sweat he licks, are a metaphor and substitute for a sexual connection with men. This makes direct sense of a play which has been seen as concerned with more abstract themes of freedom in a modern society. Bennett has created an entirely compelling evening, which reveals new layers to Peter Shaffer’s play that we can now only see because we have changed as a society since it was first performed – a sure sign of a classic.