Equus

Equus is a popular choice with young companies coming to the Fringe, and I’ve never understood why. Peter Shaffer's play was inspired by a tiny news item in a local paper about a teenager who blinded a stable full of horses for no apparent reason. From this horrific incident the author has spun a complex and thought provoking tale of sexual repression, the evils of religion and middle-aged desperation. Though the story appears to be about Alan Strang, the young horse-blinder, it really isn’t a play for young actors, and though the cast from Oikos make a reasonable stab at parts of it, the themes and depth of performance needed are way beyond them.As Alan, Leo Glover does well, bringing an unsettling quality to his portrayal, never more so than when riding the horse Nugget to orgasmic climax in the dead of night. Technically and vocally he is the strongest of the ensemble by a long way. The rest are pretty mixed in their abilities, and the situation is not helped by the fact that most of the other characters (Alan’s atheist dad, fanatically Christian mum, the sympathetic magistrate Hester who sends him for treatment rather than detention) are played by several actors each, sometimes at the same time. Why? It doesn’t add anything, and for those coming to the play for the first time may well be confusing. I suspect it’s so everyone in the company had a decent part, in which case, do a different play.The main reason, however, why this play is not suitable for a young cast, is that it’s not really about teenager Alan; it’s about his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. This is one of the greatest parts written for an actor in the 20th century. It’s been played by Richard Burton, Paul Schofield, Richard Griffiths and other heavy weights. Through Dysart's great monologues Shaffer explores the huge themes of the play – what is love, what is perversion, the value of worship, the destructive power of religion, and most importantly, the regrets of a wasted, passionless life as viewed from the wrong side of middle age. Nicholas Whitworth who plays him here is eighteen, and though probably quite a good actor is hopelessly out of his depth. He’s not bad in the dialogue scenes, but what’s left of Dysart’s engagement with the audience never resonates with us. He’s a boy in man’s clothing.There’s also an unthought through attempt at updating. One of Alan’s ticks is he constantly quotes TV jingles (commercial TV being a recent innovation when the play was written). The jingles have been updated here, yet Alan still uses words like “swiz”, and his Mum finds herself explaining to his Dad that “most people watch TV these days”. My biggest worry, however, is that we don't get a half of the play here (over an hour being cut from the original text). This is like cutting sections of a Mozart concerto, or pixelating out parts of the Mona Lisa. Apart from not giving the actors a chance (especially Dysart), it interferes with the structure. Early in the play the convention is established that props are mimed. By far the most important of these is a sharp tool used for removing stones from horse’s hooves. That establishing mime was removed from this production. As a consequence, the chilling moment at the end when Alan Strang mimes taking it out from under the straw in the stable and we know what he is about to do with it is lost. If you’ve not seen the play before, then there's some good acting here to keep you entertained and some of the text will make you think. But be warned, this is not Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

The Blurb

A highly original adaptation, an 'Equus' for the 21st century! The ensemble - the people and horses of Alan Strang's memory and imagination - become a dynamic presence within the process of his therapy. 'Amazing - a great production!' (Newbury Weekly News).