Equus at Theatre Royal Stratford East
Revived by English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East, with Ned Bennett at the helm, this co-production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus offers an intriguing and haunting take on a controversial classic.
Initially performed in 1973, the play shocked and thrilled audiences because of its subject matter. Shaffer, hearing of the horrific case of a 17-year-old boy who blinded six horses in a county town in Suffolk, used this as a stimulus for this psycho-drama where Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla), a respected child psychologist, has been asked to help young Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) come to terms with this violent act. Through his exploration, we learn that Alan has created a pseudo-religion trapped between the worship of horses and his sexual desires, which is largely down to the conflicting parental views of his zealously religious mother Dora (Syreeta Kumar) and puritanically atheist father (Robert Fitch).
One of the striking differences between this and Thea Sharrock’s 2007 revival, as well as the haunting aesthetic, is the way Dysart is portrayed. Through Varla’s performance and Bennett’s direction, there is a disturbing sense that the psychologist is obsessed by and envious of Alan’s passion. Indeed, when we consider how the piece impresses upon its audience the sexual content within the text and Dysart’s palpable marital frustrations, the interpretation works well.
However, like a few other aspects of the production, Varla overplays this obsessive streak. As such, much of his delivery emphasises his angst so much that it exposes the clunkiness in Shaffer’s script and makes us lose a sense of care for Dysart’s struggle. Kai’s performance, too, at times, lacks subtlety, particularly in his most emotionally troubled moments. Yet, he does create a beautifully awkward relationship with his co-star Norah Lopez Holden who is the perfect encapsulation of the stable-hand Jill. Indeed, Lopez Holden’s portrayal gives a depth and complexity to Jill rarely explored in other productions and that makes her an actress to look out for in the future.
It is this relationship combined with the visual aesthetic mastery of Gerogia Lowe’s set and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lurid and eerie lighting design that make this interpretation particularly fresh and meaningful. The white curtained set and roughened concrete floor help to illuminate how nightmarish Alan’s past and his present are for him and frames Dysart’s treatment with a sinister edge that has the audience compelled in this unique take on an intricate and complex text.
Photo: The Other Richard
Equus is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 15th February until 23rd March 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East’s co-production of Equus will tour the UK from 26th March 2019. For further information about venues and dates visit here.
Watch the trailer for Equus here: