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The Theatreguide.London Review

Equus
Theatre Royal Stratford East and touring   Spring 2019; Trafalgar Studios Summer 2019

[Reviewed first at Stratford; scroll down for second review of the West End transfer]

Director Ned Bennett has deliberately kept things simple in his powerful vision for Peter Shaffer's classic play about teen angst and psychiatry, which is appropriate for a production by English Touring Theatre that needs to pack up and travel on a regular basis.

Designer Georgia Lowe leaves the stage almost bare, backed by white curtains on three sides. Occasional props make important statements and are complemented by vivid lighting from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Giles Thomas's complementary musical compositions, built around chamber strings.

The visual effects are completed by the presence of a number of human horses, led by Ira Mandela Siobhan portraying Nugget in a uniquely muscular manner, fashioned by movement director Shelley Maxwell.

Zubin Varla plays Martin Dysart, the kind of offbeat head doctor who wears mismatched corduroys, brown shoes and a bemused expression. His specialisation is troubled teens, and despite an excessive workload, he is pressured by Ruth Lass's magistrate Hester to take on a 17-year-old named Alan Strang.

The boy depicted with exhausting realism by Ethan Kai has blinded six horses without reason and, but for Hester's intervention, would be spending time behind bars.

Utilising many of the skills that Conan Doyle gave to Sherlock Holmes and quite a few introduced by Sigmund Freud, Dysart slowly finds his way into the psyche of the young man. In doing so, he also analyses Alan's parents and, in passing, a series of his own problems including a loveless, childless marriage with a dentist wife who remains in the background.

Predictably, in the early stages of investigation and treatment the boy is obstructive but tellingly not violent. Gradually, his story unfolds as the doctor uses a variety of strategies to soothe and release information.

At the same time, he also interrogates the parents whose own issues provide a rich source of potential underlying cause for the youngster's behaviour. The combination of a strict but caring Christian and an un-bowing atheist, respectively Syreeta Kumar and Robert Fitch, proves explosive when brought together in the developing mind of a bright child.

The fuse that sets off the explosion is a pretty, worldly young woman named Jill Mason, played by Nora Lopez Holden. While innocently taking the young man under her wing at the local riding stables, she unwittingly taps into a mind riddled by insecurity, proving the catalyst for a devastating night of carnage but also a finely wrought, superbly acted play that richly benefits from this gripping revival.

Philip Fisher


Equus
Trafalgar Studios    Summer 2019

Peter Shaffer's psychological and spiritual drama is an acknowledged classic of twentieth-century drama, and this is the second-best production of it I've seen.

What may seem like faint praise is occasioned by two facts: the legendary original 1973 production remains such a strong memory that it eclipses most others, and no other revival has come as close as this one to matching it.

Equus is one of a string of variations on a theme that Shaffer wrote. Like Amadeus, Royal Hunt Of The Sun and a few others, it centres on a man of limited soul who encounters a genius/god/saint whose existence forces him to recognise his own mediocrity. Driven to destroy the other, he damns himself in the process.

Here a child psychologist is faced with a deeply disturbed teenager and comes to realise that the boy, in his delusions, has lived a richer, fuller, more passionate life than he, the doctor, ever has.

He can 'cure' him, but only by making him more ordinary, and doing that is only a confession of his own emptiness.

The boy's madness involves blinding some horses, and the psychological-detective-story aspect of the play involves uncovering a private religious ecstasy built out of his mother's religiosity, his fascination with horses and his confused adolescent sexuality.

Many will find the boy's drama the centre of the play, but as many will be drawn into the doctor's spiritual journey, beginning with some professional doubts and moving through the fear that there are things about the human psyche that he cannot understand, to facing the humbling and frightening fact of his own spiritual emptiness.

All this is presented on the barest of stages, with director Ned Bennett and designer Georgia Lowe opting to not even suggest the horses' heads that have been features of every previous production.

Some small parts of this seem misguided, as when Zubin Varla as Dr. Dysart is discovered lying on the floor looking like a rough sleeper (We later deduce he was napping on his office couch), or when a few big lighting and projection effects seem out of place.

Newcomer Ethan Kai captures young Alan's barely-controlled adolescent energy and has the physicality for the production's occasional stylised and choreographed sequences. He is less effective in suggesting either the frightened little boy inside the bluster or the ecstatic priest of his secret ceremonies.

Zubin Varla comes closest of any actors I've seen since Alec McCowen 46 years ago to making it clear this play is really about Dysart.

McCowen put the emphasis on the man's growing disgust with himself for leading such a timid and passionless life. Here Varla takes as his entry the doctor's exhaustion and already-existing doubts about the value of his work, and shows each discovery about Alan and about himself further weighing him down.

(In the 2007 revival Richard Griffiths played him as sardonically amused by the great cosmic joke of making him the only one able to see his own worthlessness, a reading that brought Dysart closer to Amadeus's Salieri – but that's a subject for someone else's academic thesis.)

If I may never forget the withering self-hatred of McCowen's Dysart, Zubin Varla's drooping exhaustion is almost as powerful and emotionally absorbing an image.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review -  Equus - Theatre Royal Stratford East and Trafalgar Studios  2019


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