Review - Equus at Theatre Royal Stratford East
There's always a paradox at the heart of Peter Shaffer's plays of (lack of) faith, divinity and redemption: they are unquestionably verbose in their use of language and mightily overblown in the dramatic stakes, but my God (and I use that exclamation intentionally) they can make for good theatre.
His two most famous plays are Equus (1973) and Amadeus (1979), both of which originally premiered at the National Theatre, and each revolve around their lead characters wrestling with their own consciences of envy over a boy's passion for horses (in the case of Equus) or the intensity of a rival's talent (in the case of Amadeus).
The big theatrical gesture at the heart of Equus is to embody the horses of the title that a 17-year-old stable hand is obsessed by, whom we meet in a psychiatric hospital after he has blinded six of them. In John Dexter's original production, these were famously represented by actors wearing powerful steel cages of horse's heads that were designed by John Napier.
In rising star director Ned Bennett's new touring production, the lead horse Nugget is bare-chested, muscular actor Ira Mandela Siobhan (while actors who play other supporting roles are sometimes seen as the other horses). And there's an undeniably shocking intimacy and sexual charge as he is nuzzled and fondled by Ethan Kai's Alan Strang (the brilliant movement is by Shelley Maxwell).
But that's not the only innovation and provocation in Bennett's boldly stripped-back, theatrically intense and focused production. With billowing white curtains surrounding the playing area, it only employs minimal props and set pieces to establish locations and mood, with the help of Jessica Hung Han Yin's piercing (and occasionally blinding) lighting and Giles Thomas's soundscape.
Instead, the focus is on the acting; and here the contrast between newcomer Ethan Kai's brooding intensity as Alan and veteran Zubin Varla as Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist treating him, creates an extraordinary tension. Both actors take you inside their characters' heads; neither is a comfortable place to be. But as Dysart strips the boy of his dysfunctional relationship to horses (and we also bear witness in the play to his dysfunctional parents), we also observe Dysart himself being stripped of his own certainties. It's like a psychiatric act of transference.
And the same is true of this frequently dazzling, acutely truthful production: a play I thought I knew well (and haven't always liked) comes alive as if freshly minted.
Equus tickets are available now.