Peter Shaffer’s Equus is as dark and complex as ever in this London revival, throwing god, sex, psychology and horses into a heady mix. I promise, I won’t make any “horse-hung” jokes.
Throwing religious repression and sex together has always been an intoxicating mix, from classic plays like Spring Awakening to the early hits of Madonna and Fleabag’s Hot Priest phenomenon. In Equus, teenage Alan Strang has committed a horrible act of animal cruelty on the horses he tends and is sent to a psychologist, Martin Dysart, for help. As Dysart peels back Strang’s layers to get to the truth things get more esoteric and complex.
Ethan Kai and Zubin Varla bring an off-kilter and thrilling dynamic to their roles as Strang and Dysart. Kai is all youthful and untested strength and sexuality, while Varla brings intellectual power but physical impotence; they play up to each other like sparring friends and develop a believable rapour. The power structure shifts and weaves its way through the narrative and had me on the edge of my seat. It’s a stunningly observed piece of theatre, Shaffer crafts deep and believable characters that, while their actions are extreme, sing with an element of truth.
The homoeroticism inherent in the writing jumps forth quickly here, as the horses are depicted by the ensemble (most notably Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget) through physical contortion rather than costuming. Strang’s love of the horse is here a sweaty, physical love of the muscled human form. Movement director Shelley Maxwell has excelled.
Director Ned Bennett has stripped the staging back to the raw basics, minimal props and a set surrounded by curtains. The atmosphere is created with pitch-perfect lighting and sound design.
The great thing is that this production doesn’t let Shaffer’s play down, it is a modern classic for a reason. While tabloid’s have loved to make a fuss about the second act’s nudity (when it was last revived in London in 2007 it made waves featuring a naked Daniel Radcliffe), by the time it arrives it is hits you like a punch.
It’s no wonder this production has toured the UK and already had a successful run at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Proof that regional theatre has the kind of gems the often overcrowded London theatre scene sometimes lacks.
Equus plays at Trafalgar Studios London until 7th September 2019.
By Chad Armstrong
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