Equus review Trafalgar Studios
- Credit: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard
Peter Schaffer’s 1970s homoerotic play about a boy who blinds horses gets a precise and exhilirating revival
'Can you think of anything worse to do to someone than take away their worship? ' This is the driving question in Peter Schaffer's 1973 homoerotic play Equus. The confusion of religious ecstasy and sexual attraction is given achingly fresh relevance in an exhilarating production by the Theatre Royal Stratford East and English Touring Theatre that richly deserves its transfer to the West End.
The play is based on a true story about a disturbed teenager who, one night, goes on a horse-blinding spree. Psychiatrist Martin [Zubin Varla] has to find out why. Schaffer's translation of fact into fiction revels in extreme poetic license. There's a consistent, at times heavy-handed, sado-masochistic subtext. The infamous scene where teenager Alan Strang [Ethan Kai] strips naked to ride a horse to orgasm can still shock. It earned fresh notoriety when played by Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe a decade ago. But not one element of director Ned Bennett's production relies on shorthand sensationalism. On a clinically white stage flanked by billowing white curtains, middle-aged Martin [menopausal perhaps, he quibbles] tries to tease out the truth about Strang's violence. His childhood is sketched in caricatured retro brushstrokes - a 'relentlessly self-improving' dad and a pious yet indulgent mother. But neither parent is nearly bad enough to shed much light on the matter. Primal passion refuses to be pinned down. For a desiccated rationalist like Martin who's trapped in a sterile marriage and has a love of ancient Greece - Strang's passion is ultimately enviable.
What's remarkable in this production is how precisely the actors manifest horses. The original used masks. Here, Ira Mandela Siobhan as Strang's favourite horse Nugget uses movement to convey sleek sinews and rolls his eyes so that shifts in the animal's emotions seem painfully clear. With the rest of the ensemble often doubling up as horses, this Equus never risks becoming a two-man debate of reason against instinct though both Kai and Varla are riveting to watch. A startling lighting design which evokes flashes of lightning shocks the senses and forces a connection to Strang's unconscious. The desire for transcendence is made impossible to ignore.