Child psychiatrist Martin Dysart faces one of the most challenging cases of his career: 17-year-old Alan Strang has committed an almost unspeakably violent act against horses, whilst seeming to be a great lover of the animals. Peter Shaffer’s iconic play examines issues of obsession, sexuality and madness, and speaks as clearly to the audience today as it did when first performed in 1973.
The concept of Equus is arresting, and director Thea Sharrock and designer John Napier have built on this to create an absolutely gripping production. From the solo alto voice and weirdly beautiful horse masks of the opening scene through the shocking re-enactments of Alan’s encounters with the horses to the final - quiet, yet deeply uncomfortable - finale, we are constantly stimulated, provoked and questioned. This is not a play that one can watch passively.
Alfie Allen is appealing as the gauche teenager, only truly coming to life in the company of his beloved, worshipped horses. Simon Callow provides the counterweight in the kindly yet self-doubting Dr Dysart, led by Alan to question the very foundations of his professional and private lives. The talented sextet of actors who play the horses blend stylisation with naturalism to powerful, even erotic effect, the visual counterpart to the sexualised language that flows through this play.
One of the issues addressed by Equus is the sources of madness, and the relative responsibilities of nature and nurture. Alan’s mother (nervily played by Helen Anderson) denies blame, yet to the audience, the potential damage of her extreme religious behaviours and her husband’s repression must at least figure in the equation. At the same time, the play asks what it means (and who defines what it is) to be normal, and underlines the terrible price of a life without pain. By ‘curing’ children of their madness, it suggests, adults risk destroying their capacity to feel life-changing, heart-bursting joy.
Equus continues at the Arts Theatre until Sat 15 March
Review by Rachel Fentem