Thursday, 8 August 2019

REVIEW: Equus at Trafalgar Studios

Peter Shaffer is one of those amazing playwrights whose work is timeless, and I was so pleased to finally see Equus (written in 1973 and directed here by Ned Bennett) after hearing about it for so many years. 

This is the story of a 17-year-old boy, Alan, who lands in a mental institution after he’s pierced the eyes of numerous horses at the stable he’s been working at. A long series of sessions with psychiatrist Martin Dysart starts, and we slowly realise that his awful act is the result of a god-like obsession and sexual attraction to horses and his paranoia about being constantly watched by them.

Speaking of horses, these are played on the Trafalgar Studio 1 stage by actors who perfectly embody the noble animals thanks to movement choreographed by Shelley Maxwell. The two main horses are Keith Gilmore and Ira Mandela Siobhan. One special touch is when Siobhan snorts out smoke through his nostrils. 

I would say it is the movement that makes this show so beautiful and shocking at times, as well as innovative, but the blinding and sometimes uncomfortable lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun also adds to the play’s atmosphere. The nightmares that Alan and Martin describe, as well as the looming presence of the horses that Alan constantly feels, are lit up from behind curtains or through sequences of strobe lighting.

The acting is phenomenal, with all actors committed to the show and their role to the very last inch. Ethan Kai as the lead is scary but also shows so much of the depressed and confused teenager who is overwhelmed by his emotions. Norah Lopez Holden is bold and relaxed as Jill Mason, and Zubin Varla as the psychiatrist is honest and overwhelmed himself by his new relationship with his patient. 

A striking moment for me was in a scene when Dysart talks to the magistrate Hesther Salomon (Natalie Radmall-Quirke). He describes his envy and jealousy of Alan, who at least “gallops”, feels something. Dysart thinks he has never felt as passionate in his own life, and says that if you “don’t worship, you shrink.” 

This show comments on how society and the Judicial system condemn people so
quickly without trying to understand when they do a “twisted” act of violence. Yes, of course the act can be awful, but what is it saying about what needs to be expressed? We can be so scarred by what happens in our childhood, and this show reminded me how thin the line is between sanity and insanity. Ultimately, is it better to put a patient under medication to stop those “awful” urges and drive forever? 

Religious upbringing is also a theme in this play: Alan’s parents’ disagreement about how to raise him intertwine with his first experience with a horse. Again, “children will listen”. 

I strongly recommend this philosophical and explosive show. It will make you laugh, think, be afraid and remember how mental health issues are not something to put aside or brush off as easily curable.

Review by Sophie Tergeist

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: H20 | Price of Ticket: £45
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