Peter Shaffer’s Equus remains a play of almost unbearable intensity, with its touch of the confessional, religious mania, and deep eroticism. It’s also hard to pull off, with humans depicting horses and a heavy dose of telling, not showing, other than those two pivotal scenes that close each act.
Dr Martin Dysart is a child psychiatrist, who uses games and tricks to get into the mind of those who come to the mental hospital for treatment. One such is disturbed teenager Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses in the stable where he worked.
At first Alan only communicates by singing TV ad jingles, but slowly Dysart starts to get through, but in doing so to reach the boy “in misery” (as friend and magistrate Hesther puts it) he only awakens his own unhappiness and neurosis.
Dysart can be a showy role: although originated by Alec McCowen on stage, actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Burton (who went on to star in the film version which I have seen many times) were attracted to the role, which is on stage throughout the 2 hour 40 running time, and even before, as audiences adjust to the sparse set surrounded on three sides by white curtains.
Here, Zubin Varla is quiet, nervous, twitchy. At first his Dysart seems ineffectual, but slowly his compelling performance commands attention, and without any actorly bombast, becomes one of the best I’ve seen this year. The doctor who cannot “gallop”, who sits every night resenting the woman, his wife, opposite him, who dreams of sacrificing children.
As Alan, Ethan Kai provides a staggering breakrhrough performance of animal intensity as the plot develops, and we learn how his parents’ conflict with religion and his growing fascination with sex has led to him first becoming erotically obsessed with the Cruxifiction, then with the feel, smell and sweat of horses.
Using flashes and washes of coloured light, staged reconstructions, herbal cigarettes, and the imagination, Ned Bennett’s production, which has transferred from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, illuminstes Shaffer’s play and underlines its power to provoke, shock, disturb and profoundly move an audience.
Although this is ultimately a two-hander for most of its running time, the supporting cast remain essential, with Ira Mandela Siobhan’s Nugget, Robert Fitch’s Mr Strang, Doreene Blackstock’s Mrs Strang, and Natalie Radmail-Quirke’s Hesther of particular note.
Shelly Maxwell’s strong and sensual choreography, Giles Thomas’s sound design, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting all contribute to making this a powerful revival I will remember for a long time.
Equus continues at the Trafalgar Studios until 7 September. Photo credits The Other Richard.