Equus

There's something particularly appropriate about experiencing Peter Shaffer's Equus at the Bedlam Theatre. It is a play, after all, in which a psychologist attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses. Given that Bedlam Theatre is housed in an imposing neo-gothic former church, which in turn was built on the site of Edinburgh's old madhouse, it would only require some nearby stables to be an almost perfect thematic match.

Equus is, therefore, essentially a two-hander, standing or falling on the strengths of the actors playing psychologist and young patient.

Equus isn’t site-specific of course, although you could be forgiven for thinking this production is trying to be –the main set is little more than a slightly raised platform with railings and two wooden benches. It’s such a paired-back production that the cast, when not required, sit motionless in the gloom at the back and sides of the stage, awaiting their time to move forward into the light. But what light; much of the atmosphere in director Emily Aboud’s excellent production is down to her focused, symbolic use of colour – ranging from ultra-violet to blood red – against an otherwise blacked out Bedlam stage.

The supporting cast provide fair performances, even those playing characters whose thankless purpose is primarily to nudge the narrative forward with important information. Equus is a detective story, after all. Not a whodunnit, obviously; we know the “who”before we even see him. Instead, the mystery to be unlocked is why; Equus’s narrative is Dr Martin Dysart’s attempt to unpick young Alan Strang’s psychological history and – despite his own personal career doubts – bring him back to some kind of “normality”…whatever that actually is.

Equus is, therefore, essentially a two-hander, standing or falling on the strengths of the actors playing psychologist and young patient. Thankfully, Charley Cotton is authoritative as the psychiatrist Dysart; commanding our attention from the word go, he shows us the increasingly fragile man behind the professional demeanour with real subtlety and heart. Yet the true revelation here must be Douglas Clark as Alan Strang; extremely tall, gangly and physically awkward, he’s the epitome of the loud, dysfunctional, hormonal teenager. Clark also manages to be, on occasions, genuinely frightening without ever losing our sympathies. That he physically looms over most of the cast – including Liam Rees and Francesca Knope as Strang’s stressed-out parents – just adds to the overall effect.

The horses that feature in the story are, of course, represented by four performers wearing wire-framed horse masks. Their balletic choreography is necessarily somewhat exaggerated, balanced precariously on the edge of laughable, but there is something sufficiently worrying out their appearance – especially in the freezing cold auditorium that’s become something of a Bedlam Theatre signature in the winter months – to still any laughter. Which is appropriate enough for a production which, while not afraid to enjoy the peculiar, nevertheless leaves a slight chill in the heart.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Equus, written by Oscar-award winning playwright Peter Shaffer, opened in 1973 and is now a worldwide phenomenon, winning the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway.

The plot revolves around the relationship between Alan Strang, a boy in his late teens and Dr. Martin Dysart, a child psychiatrist. Dysart is brought the most challenging case of his career in young Alan, whose pathological religious fascination with horses seems an impossible puzzle to solve. The play explores the age-old question of normality with Dysart attempting to understand the boy’s actions while wrestling with his own sense of purpose and diminishing sanity.