Theatre Review: Equus by Peter Shaffer at Northern Stage, Newcastle

The English Touring Theatre (ETT) have just completed their time at Newcastle’s Northern Stage before continuing on to a run at Guildford performing Peter Shaffer’s ‘Equus’. It is a superb production.

The subject matter is dark and based on an actual real event – a boy blinds several horses with a poker in a single night. Shaffer found himself mystified (as we surely would be too) why someone would do such a thing. ‘Equus’ was born from pursuing exactly what would drive a young man to this repulsive act.

Ruth Lass (Hester Salomon), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) and Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart).
Image: The Other Richard

Ethan Kai plays the boy, Alan Strang, with beautiful fragility and self-absorption. Believable as a tortured mind forced, not by abuse exactly, but by the pressure of societal norms to sink into a world of guilt, worship and desire from which the inevitable arises. Zubin Varla plays the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, assigned to help the boy. I did not care so much for Varla – his diction I found off-putting – yet nonetheless, he gives a compelling performance of a professional man who knows he’s unimportant and is disappointed with life. In many senses, it is actually Dysart who we are dissecting and analysing during the play as, through the boy, he pulls himself apart. Ruth Lass plays Hester, Dysart’s confidante and the one who introduces Alan to the psychiatrist. Her role is limited but I liked everything about the actor and would like to see her again.

Dominating the stage, however, was the powerful Ira Mandela Siobhan. This actor was clearly in control of every muscle, every fibre of his attractive physique, and this was essential for the role of the horse, Nugget. Shaffer said long ago that he wanted to avoid any pantomime-esque portrayal of the horses which are central to the story. Originally, wire-mesh heads were used to symbolise the clearly human actors as equine. The ETT production dispenses with any props at all except straps as bits for the mouth and incredible body language – both of which lend an overwhelming sexual intensity to the parts. Movement director, Shelley Maxwell, must be praised for this work because it was perfect. Siobhan was Nugget and sexually arousing beyond belief. His performance was electrifying.

It is an irony that while plays are meant to be seen rather than read, teenagers tend to read and study scripts rather than see productions. Of course, the play you study at A level may well not be produced at the time but in my student days – before the online world of streaming and supply of almost anything you might care to see – it was even harder to see what you’ve spent two years getting to know intimately. Nevertheless, studying Shaffer’s play was one of a handful of life-changing moments for me and I have taught my own students about the story countless times without actually having the opportunity to see the play itself. I’ve waited 30 years for the opportunity but the wait was worth it. Interestingly, I began as a youth about the same age as Alan Strang; now I’m more the age of Martin Dysart. Perhaps this was a part of why this production was such a revelation to me. A play so full of questions that I still don’t have all (any?) of the answers. Watching the eight-strong cast at Northern Stage merely increased the questions to be asked – and the experience was delicious.

What are we supposed to make of ‘Equus’? To an extent it depends on what you bring to it. Almost every critique I’ve read of this play brings a different aspect to it and indeed, watching the ETT production raised new thoughts. I was always captured by Dysart’s admission that he envies Alan. The boy has truly loved, truly worshipped, truly believed. Dysart feels he believes nothing, not even in himself, and has no one to share with deeply, his own marriage being an abject failure. I cannot help but link this with the post-9/11 world in which we live today which Shaffer could hardly have imagined when he started writing. Would Dysart envy the ISIS terrorist or is such a thought a ‘little extreme’? But then, that’s the point of this play: Alan Strang is extreme.

Ira Mandela Siobhan (Nugget) and Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image: The Other Richard.

From this production though, I became aware of a different undercurrent never spoken in word but clearly portrayed in the performances: ‘unacceptable’ homoerotic urges. In 1973 when Shaffer wrote the play, the fight between the secular and religious was only just moving from the ivory towers of theologians into the everyday world. Everyone still considered themselves ‘Christian’ but church attendance was falling rapidly. Today, the secular has mostly won but the issue of gender and sexuality has become the new battleground. The shift of emphasis exudes out of the production. The way Alan touches Nugget is far more erotic than the climactic scene between Alan and Jill (Norah Lopez Holden) where she moves him as though he were a plastic doll into the right position. The bestial nature of his adoration of the horse/man is simultaneously homoerotic – and so, ‘wrong’ on both fronts in eyes of a society which no longer cares if you are religious or not.

Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard.

And in the end, what is the result? “I’m telling you a lie” Dysart admits to Alan, having previously confessed that everything he does is just “tricks” to get at the truth. Does it help? No. Alan Strang will still be the boy who blinded these horses. Dysart may hate being a ‘nosey parker’ as Alan accuses him of being, but ultimately that’s exactly what he is and he’s forced to admit it. Here, Shaffer echoes the acclaimed writings of Jeffrey Masson whose criticisms make the same arguments against therapy. What even is the truth, let alone, why try to reveal it if nothing can be done for the soul who has to live with it? Difficult questions, but no answers.

‘Equus’ is a production by the English Touring Theatre in association with Straford East and directed by Ned Bennett. The tour continues to Guildford from 7-11 May.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine.

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