London Theatre Review: Equus
| By Jack Slater
(Updated on Jul 17, 2019)
They shoot horses, don’t they? Well, no. Not in Peter Shaffer’s classic thriller. In Equus, the horses are blinded.
It’s fair to say that on the surface Equus is not an immediate front runner in the crowded West End. It doesn’t have the obvious family appeal of, say, Aladdin, or the heartwarming wallop of Come From Away. And this production doesn’t have a marquee name like Daniel Radcliffe starring, like its 2007 West End and Broadway runs.
But to dismiss Ned Bennett’s newest production of the classic play would be a big, big mistake. You would be missing out on what was one of the most evocative (and provocative) plays I have seen in many years.
To try to sum up the play would be foolish. This is a play about… people. About what makes us, what breaks us and quite possibly what it takes for us to truly feel alive. For a play written in 1973, it feels more prescient and relevant than ever before. For the play explores what it truly means to be ‘normal.’
We’re fortunate living in a more expressive society, with gender binaries uncaged and identities stomping out of previously limiting boxes. Fitting in is less important, and perhaps that could’ve saved both Dysart and Alan.
Dysart struggles with his chosen career path, a psychologist, when it becomes evident that his oh-so normal life is a sham. Sure, he hasn’t gone out and blinded six horses, but what exactly HAS he done? That is his dilemma. Should he strip Alan of his passions, his beliefs, his lust for life, because society views it as ‘not normal’?
There is no defence for blinding six innocent horses, let’s make that clear. But the whys behind Alan – tormenting and tormented in equal measure – give the play its power. Alan did a bad thing. A very bad thing. But the play – which references ‘extremes’ a few times in the dialogue – perfectly juxtaposes his bright-burning passions with Dysart’s drab, dullard disappointment. Alan believes. He believes in the spirit of a god in the horses he cares for. This spirit charges through him, it gives meaning to an otherwise meandering existence. And if it doesn’t quite make sense to you, or I, well, so be it. It’s the fear of being outcast, of being misunderstood, of being othered that leads to his act of violence.
With minimal staging and a ‘bare-bones’ feel to the aesthetics, the morality of the play burns through every bit of dialogue. The horses are played by people with their ripped, muscular bodies on display. Nugget (Ira Mandela Siobhan), the main horse, is statuesque. The physicality of the interactions therefore take on a sexually charged feel. Sweaty bodies merge and grapple, the audience unsure who’s really leading the battle – much like the internal conflicts going on in Dysart, Alan and Alan’s parents.
Every intense burst of humanity sears from Dr Dysart (played note perfectly by Zubin Varla) and Alan (the strikingly intense Ethan Kai). Such was the intensity that this play did the impossible – during the interval, a bunch of strangers began chatting. In London.
Entering the play, I wondered what a play about horses was going to ‘mean’ to me. Or a contemporary audience. But Dysart, in one of his monologues, speaking of ‘normal being in the dead eyes of a million adults’ going about their routined lives felt precisely cutting. The discussions of extremes – of believing in something so intensely opposed to feeling nothing passionate at all – lingered with me as I walked home, blending in with hundreds of city dwellers all leaving their respective theatres, restaurants and offices for the night. Should we all be galloping more freely, society be damned, or is it ever really safe to break free from the reins?
Equus is currently booking at the West End's Trafalgar Studios until 7th September 2019.
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