Review: Equus

Jessica Murdoch 27 March 2019
Image Credit: Equus Production Photos

★★★★★

For someone who has only ever heard about Equus before, its mention may bring to mind:
‘horses’, ‘sex’, and ‘Daniel Radcliffe’s naked body.’ While these factors (bar Daniel) are consistent throughout the many renditions that have been staged since its first run in 1973, the English Touring Theatre’s production draws every fibre of visceral and intellectual richness from the script, and demonstrates with electric force that it is as relevant now as it was five decades ago.

Equus follows the journey of psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) who is challenged with discovering what drove seventeen-year-old Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) to blind six horses in a Hampshire stable where he worked. Rather than being repulsed by what he uncovers, Dysart finds himself comparing Alan’s world of twisted faith and sexuality to his own; the deeper he delves, the more he questions the sanity of being ‘normal’ in our modern society.

In a fascinating pre-show talk, director Ned Bennett was asked ‘what were the biggest problems you faced?’; after teasingly correcting ‘problems’ to ‘challenges’, he replied with one word: ‘Horses.’ Historically, productions seem to favour intricate wire masks or puppetry, whereas Bennett took the risk of having six of the actors, in varying capacities, adopt the role of ‘Horse’ themselves. The results were mesmerising; under the wonderful movement direction of Shelley Maxwell, the cast mastered every little twitch to each heavy weight shift, and the way in which they depicted a horse’s peripheral awareness through wide-eyed front-facing stares was inspired. Ira Mandela Siobhan’s performance in the role of Nugget (a horse to which Alan is particularly drawn to) deserves particular mention: tasked with opening the play, Mandela Siobhan utterly transformed before the audience’s eyes and perfectly set the tone for the disturbing yet mesmerising performance that was to follow.

The production kept the audience on its toes from start to finish, not least thanks to the design team who transformed the stage into a psychological minefield. The bare set, walled by huge white curtains which were dirtied at the bottom by the grubby floor, meant that every prop or set piece was able to immediately relocate the space to an entirely different setting. For instance, in one of the seamless transitions, four sandcastles simply slid onto stage and instantly transformed the space into a beach. The space provided the perfect canvas for the lighting and sound team; an almost constant soundtrack, designed and composed by Giles Thomas, created a sustained dream-like atmosphere of suspense. Occasional distorted bursts of noise caused literal jump-out-of-your-seat moments and wonderfully depicted the mental anguish of both Alan and Dystart. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design was among the best I have ever seen; in a pre-show talk, the lighting was described as ‘another character onstage’, and that certainly was felt in this production. A vast array of techniques pulled the audience into the story and characters’ troubled head-spaces: the stage filled with colour to the point of complete saturation; the audience were blinded; borderline-subliminal flashes of neon caused delayed moments of shock and confusion; and brilliant white light illuminated every smooth curve of Nugget’s muscular form.

The entire cast deserve huge praise; you could feel the depth and history of every character, and felt the urge to discover what they were thinking or trying to do. Taking on the role of Dystart is no mean feat, and Varla completely rose to the challenge. The characters were skilfully depicted as strange oxymorons, which Varla demonstrated with incredible naturalism through displaying Dystart’s nervous confidence and outward introspection, evoking from the audience sympathy and rebuke in equal measures. Kai’s performance as Alan was similarly outstanding; again, he managed to evoke fear and pity simultaneously, and absolutely perfected Alan’s ‘accusing stare’. Before and after the show, Bennett and the cast explained how the creative process was hugely collaborative, with the actors having freedom to bring forward their own ideas and make the absolute most of out their individual skills and talents. Through every actor being able to make the role their own in this way, in the final production it felt like every actor was made for their role.

Before the show, Bennett spoke about how Equus offers endless possibilities of interpretation;
while this is undeniably true—and a real gift to creative teams—it would be a struggle to find a
production that executes the script with more stunning precision and colour. Every scene, even every transition between scenes, deserves its own glowing review; the production is a true showcase of creative talent in all areas of theatre: writing, directing, designing, acting. When asked what made him want to put on the show, Bennet answered with four words: ‘universal human condition, question!’ He and the team wanted to make a show which required the audience to ‘feel first, think later’, which perfectly sums the tantalisingly affective nature of this production of Equus, which will undoubtedly have you thinking long after the curtain falls. If you are in Cambridge this week or are able to catch the show on tour, do yourself a favour: see it, feel it, and then think about it later.