Equus Production Photos ©The Other Richard

Review: Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

The magic of net curtains is that you can look out but nobody outside can see in. In Ned Bennett’s new production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, giant white net curtains enclose the bare stage on all three sides as we watch a child psychiatrist expose the horrors and passions hidden inside the mind of a well brought-up teenager in a provincial suburb. The curtains – evoking the play’s hospital setting – twitch and flutter as we discover how 17-year-old Alan Strang’s relatively ordinary upbringing leads him to blinding six horses at a local stable.

With this brutal act at the heart, the link between sight and understanding is a recurring motif throughout. Like the net curtains, psychiatrist Martin Dysart is initially unable to make out what is going on inside Alan’s head but he can see something looking out at him. “I’ve stared at such images before,” he confesses, “or been stared at by them often. The feeling is that they are staring at us.” What Dysart finds there is enough to trigger doubts about his own life, finding himself strangely envious of Alan’s extreme, primitive passions, despite their contravention of “normal” society, in contrast to his own drab existence and passionless marriage. He questions whether the treatment of his young patients may be destroying their ardent individuality, leading them to grow into normal adults with a “dead stare”.

Forty-six years on from its original debut, Shaffer’s modern classic still has a capacity to shock and disturb. Alongside Georgia Lowe’s minimalist but ingenious set design, Bennett has given the drama a fresh and exciting sharpness through Jessica Hung Han Yun’s expressive and sometimes startling lighting design and haunting music and sound design from Giles Thomas. Thanks to movement director Shelley Maxwell, actors transform themselves into horses using only their bodies, most notably Ira Mandela Siobhan with an impressive muscular plasticity.

With his urbane, deadpan delivery, Zubin Varla is perfectly pitched as the psychiatrist who remains spiritless in the face of the horrors he has to tackle in his job, even when he finds himself having an existential crisis. With an athletic physicality, Ethan Kai is excellent as Alan, combining a childlike innocence with the unbridled joys of his equine obsession. His performance brings a homoerotic sensuality that is unsettling in its representation of his intense desire for an animal.

With its troubling psychology and the religious fervour of Alan’s obsession, Equus has haunted me ever since I heard a radio adaptation as a teenager, featuring Peter Barkworth and Ian Sharrock in the lead roles. With its seamless pace, Bennett’s gripping and visually striking production intelligently explores and illuminates the themes and ideas, confirming why this remains not only an A-level set text but one of Shaffer’s most admired plays.

Running to 23 March 2019.

Picture by The Other Richard.

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