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Equus: Theatre Royal Stratford East (and touring)

March 13, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 2nd March 2019)

A psychiatrist tries to get into the buttoned-up mind of a 17 year old boy who loves horses – and has carried out an amazingly savage attack on six of those he cares for.

Peter Shaffer’s play is more than 45 years old, yet still exerts the ability to hold audiences in iron grip when given an outstandingly simple production like this one. The simplest set (Georgia Lowe) has curtains surround the stage, a bed, TV set and a few other bits and bobs moved on and off as required. Movement director Shelley Maxwell supplies the horses, in impressive manner – Nugget (Ira Mandela Siobhan – superlative) and Keith Gilmore also doing so brilliantly.

Acting honours are spread pretty equally through the cast. Central to the plot,

Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) is monosyllabic yet tortured as the teenage man. Thrillingly, he manages to remain interesting even when utterly closed off and remote, making his later unwinding even more compelling. Scenes with Jill Mason (Norah Lopez Holden) run deep with dangerous undercurrents of which she is unaware, to her cost. Mason makes the most of a small role, particularly when given the initiative in her earlier scenes.

Strang’s psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) asks probing questions, not just of his patient’s life, but also his own – and indeed the world. His choreography of the final revelations are frightening, but not quite as thought-provoking as his realisations that disturbed as they are, his patient’s actions are more alive than his own.

Magistrate Hester Salomon (Ruth Lass) provides the intellectual wall for Dysart to richochet off, while Strang’s parents Dora (Syreeta Kumar) and Frank (Robert Fitch) hover. She is a religious person, formally a teacher; he is a printer – and rules as straight as a line of text… or so it would appear.

The play itself remains a dissection of organised religion and its role in society. Much more for post-show discussion than with time to explore mid-performance, there’s symbolism and arguments, attacks on the doctrines of blind obedience and indeed the lack of sight (the heavy central metaphor of the entire play).

After 45 years, there is some dating. It’s arguable that some of the iconoclasm has already occurred, in fact, this country appears to have evolved as the writer predicted in that area. Small other details, like a scene in an “adult movie” cinema and the attitudes to that material also age the piece, and it is necessary to think back to pre-internet and loosening of censorship and society rules in order to comprehend fully parts of the second act.

Ned Bennett’s production, though, makes tight work of the fine writing; the cast and staging do their best to present a modern classic at its best. Should the Ambassadors Theatre in London become available, this would certainly settle in for a long and successful run.

Meanwhile it visits Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, Salford, Newcastle and Guildford until May 2019. Don’t miss it if it comes your way.


4 stars.

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