Danny Coleman-Cooke reviews English Touring Theatre’s and Theatre Royal Stratford East’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus as it starts a UK Tour.
Ben Hur, Equus, War Horse; over the decades our equine friends have become a dramatic staple (I suppose they are more elegant than the rarely dramatised pig).
And never has the horse been portrayed so dynamically as during this wonderful adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s classic text.
The traditional wire masks have been eschewed for a more naturalistic approach, with some evocative movement perfectly channelling the spirit and movement of the great beasts.
We join Equus as troubled teenager Alan Strang is sent to a psychiatrist, Dr Dysart, after he inexplicably blinds seven horses. The doctor, grappling with his own personal problems, soon starts to unravel Alan’s remarkable story.
Although the story does not shock as it must have done upon its release in 1973, it still feels fresh and brimming with insight about the human condition. Although some of Dysart’s monologues verge on the lengthy and melodramatic, the dialogue is sharp and there are moments of great humour (especially after a comedic twist in the second half).
The performances are first class; with Ethan Kai leading the cast brilliantly as Alan Strang. Starting out uncommunicative, he opens up shows real depth and range, inspiring real sympathy for Alan’s confused state of mind, despite his horrific crime.
I was slightly startled seeing Zubin Varla sat on stage as I entered the theatre, having previously only seen him crooning as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. But he was superlative as Dr Dysart, mining the dry humour and wretched self-doubt from Shaffer’s text.
I was also impressed by a fine performance from Robert Fitch as Alan’s stubborn and uncompromising father, struggling to combine the challenges of parenting a teenager with his dogmatic principles.
The action takes place on a simple and clinical set, enclosed in medical style curtains, which are used to brilliant effect in a coup de theatre at the end of the play.
The movement was enchanting throughout, with credit to movement director Shelley Maxwell and Ira Mandela Siobahn’s anthropomorphic performance as Nugget, Alan’s favourite horse.
Drawing on pertinent themes of religion, parenthood and psychiatry, this is a play that remains as important as it was when it opened almost fifty years ago.
Thanks to an excellent cast and strong direction from rising star Ned Bennett, this is truly a fresh take on a British classic.