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Equus review at Theatre Royal Stratford East – ‘stark, striking and frequently brilliant’

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ethan Kai in Equus. Photo: The Other Richard
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Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play features a constant push and pull between the Apollonian and the Dionysian; that is, between the rational and ordered, the unrestrained and pleasure-centred.

Seventeen-year-old Alan Strang blinded six horses. Assessing the boy, his psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart keeps wondering what it is to be “normal”. Whether it’s possible, or even desirable, to re-programme the boy’s mind so that he’s less messed up.

Director Ned Bennett plays out an equivalent battle with this production, albeit one scaled down to the realm of theatre. He pits realistic, ordered plays that behave themselves against theatre that is unhinged and unruly. The straight play versus performance art; or the writer’s theatre versus the director’s.

At the centre of Bennett’s production is a fantastically mannered performance from Zubin Varla as Dysart. His intense delivery makes him seem frightened and yet almost sneering at the same time. He doesn’t move around the stage much, but tosses and turns on the spot, flinging a hand up to illustrate a point, or shakily lighting a cigarette. He talks to the audience like a patient to his own psychiatrist. It’s incredibly compelling, especially during a couple of meaty, shouty monologues towards the end.

Ethan Kai’s performance as Strang is, interestingly, the most straightforward – the most “normal.” He is sullen, like a teenager, and frightened at what he’s done.

There’s an overarching sense here that all the actors are performing parts in a play. That they’re reciting a script. Maybe it’s the effect of the 1970s costumes (lots of brown corduroy) against the white curtain backdrop, part of a beautifully blank and austere set from Georgia Lowe. It may also be to do with the absurd elements Bennett brings to the text. Strang’s dad is like a character out of a 1970s sitcom, played very much for laughs. This all makes it feel as if the play itself is being psychoanalysed, the white, curtained set its own padded cell.

Bennett’s production has an extraordinary visual language. This results not only from Lowe’s set, or Jessica Hung Han Yun’s exquisite lighting, full of intense colours that feel almost hallucinatory, but also from Shelley Maxwell’s choreography. The actors playing the horses stiffen their sinews so that every limb is tensed. They reach down to the ground at an unusual angle; their necks become manes.

Just as the play looks at the futility of putting the square peg of Strang’s mind into the round hole of ‘normal’ society, so Bennett takes this carefully structured, well-written play and tries to make it fit with a visual aesthetic to which it’s not naturally suited – the effect is stark and striking, and really quite brilliant.

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Stark, striking and frequently brilliant production of Peter Shaffer’s play