Written in 1973 Peter Shaffer’s play about teenage rage and sexuality feels as relevant today as ever. Whilst some aspects have dated (the family’s distrust of television, the porn cinemas and the dominance of religion) there is something quite ‘incel’ about Alan Strang, a 17 year old boy who is put into psychiatric care after blinding 6 horses at the stable he works at, played with intensity and a degree of charm by Ethan Kai.
Strang’s story is told via his psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart played by Zubin Varla, a weak, anxious man who wrestles with his personal life including an obsession with ancient Greek and a loveless marriage, along with his role which involves working with disturbed children. In his role to fix them and make them ‘normal’ he is removing any passion that made their lives worthwhile.
As a result the relationship between Dysart and Strang is tense. Dysart doesn’t need any additional cases but does it as a favour to Hesther (Ruth Lass), a magistrate who trusts Dysart to do the best for Strang, who is uncooperative, and the production really comes alive when Strang begins to trust Dysart and his unorthodox methods of hypnotising and placebo truth pills.
Ned Bennett’s direction is another star of the show; the relationship between Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget, a Chestnut horse who has a close relationship with Strang, is stunning. Siobhan’s physical presence and control is beautiful to watch. He also commands stage as a mysterious man on a horse who begins Strang’s obsession with horses, which builds on the religious and television imagery built on by his mother Dora and rejected by his father Frank.
This is an exceptional production of a play that has been produced frequently. Partly it is the timing; Strang’s story feels like the beginnings of a psychopath, as those around him fail to pinpoint the issues that lead to his abhorrent crime. In a world where young men are shooting strangers in the US Strang’s response to his sexual failure feels modern. Varla as Dysart is the Saileri figure to Strang’s Amadeus; trying to explain his actions whilst dealing with his own feeling of inadequacy and serves as a sympathetic narrator.
There is excellent support from Norah Lopez Holden as Jill, Strang’s love interest whose interest in sex awakens Strang’s rage and Ethan Kai is a real one to watch, he has a real range and understanding of Strang; the intensity and anger contrasting with Strang’s joy in talking about his horses; his adoration and his urge to be close to them.
Equus is on until the 7 September 2019 https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/equus/trafalgar-studios/