Equus is a really hard script to get right. With its multiple lengthy monologues, the need to represent horses on stage and its difficult subject matter, Shaffer’s play is extremely hard to stage in all its complexity. However, when it is done well, Equus is truly spell-binding. I saw a production of the show in 2019 at Trafalgar Studios in an incredible version directed by Ned Bennett and I left the theatre truly shaken by what I had seen. Thus, I came into the ADC on Tuesday night with great expectations and it is with great pleasure that I can say that Aoife Pallister Begadon’s production mostly gets it right.
I will firstly say that the production is boosted massively by the phenomenal performance of Mark Jones as Alan Strang. He is a creepy presence on stage, and Jones’ consistent physicality and vocal performance remains convincing throughout and never strays too far into the stereotype. Jones manages to bring considerable depth to his characterisation and it really energises the entire performance. In particular, Jones’ re-enactments of Alan’s crimes remain the standout sequences of the production, with Alan’s monologue at the end of the first act being the production’s strongest moment. Gregory Miller is similarly strong as psychiatrist Martin Dysart. Dysart is an incredibly difficult character to get right: his long monologues can often read as indulgent or meandering but Miller manages to bypass this through his sheer charisma, energy and clear marking of the dramatic beats of each speech.
However, Miller does peak a bit too early in his intensity and I felt that by the end, his performance had become slightly ‘shouty’, undermining his final dramatic monologue as it appeared to be a repeat of emotions Miller had acted out earlier. I felt if Miller had held back slightly more in the earlier stages, these later expressions of rage and disbelief would have come across as far more impactful. However, Miller was still a joy to watch on stage, particularly in his conversations with Alan and other psychiatrist Hester and often had the audience giggling at Dysart’s humorous asides.
I would also like to highlight the effectiveness of the sound design. The use of music consistently added to the sense of dread throughout and significantly heightened the dramatic tension. The set was also equally effective, with its minimalist aesthetic and row of crosses at the back adding to the sense of religious unease and discomfort throughout. I also thought the production was really well blocked, never staying still for too long and making full use of the entire ADC stage. Too often, productions of the ADC have remained mainly on the forestage but I really enjoyed how Aoife’s production took advantage of the depth of the ADC’s stage which gave the piece a real sense of scale.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Equus is in its representation of horses on stage. Shaffer deliberately discourages using anything that resembles a horse in the script, instead encouraging actors to give the impression of a horse through strongly defined physicality. This, however, is where the production is ultimately at its weakest. Whilst there are some lovely moments of involvement from the ensemble, such as at the end of Act 1 or during a sequence set in a technology shop, I felt the physicality of the horses was poorly defined and often came across as more comic than dramatic. In particular, during one scene where Alan is shown to first come across a horse, actor Joe Harrington rode onto stage imagining a horse as if in Monty Python and when he ‘galloped’ off stage, this actually elicited a few minor laughs from the audience. Furthermore, with the exception of the horse ‘Nugget’, during scenes set in the stables, the horses are relegated to standing at the very back of the stage, swaying their head from side to side and making the occasional grunt. Without a clear physicality, it is hard for the audience to believe in the horses so often talked about in the play and thus Alan’s obsession with them loses some of its dramatic weight.
However, this weakness does not ultimately undermine the entire production. Indeed, whilst Equus is a long play, I really didn’t feel its runtime and this was helped by smooth and efficient scene transitions and two very strong central performances. Ultimately, this production of Equus is a thrilling and exhilarating watch that very often leaves you on the edge of your seat. I was often transfixed by the central dynamic between Alan and Dysart and was very impressed by how well the production team had realised Shaffer’s complex and difficult script. I would definitely recommend going to see this production- it really isn’t horsin’ around.