I recall many years ago (too many!) I started reading the script of Equus in my school library – I’m not sure anyone even knew the book was there and, certainly if they knew the content, perhaps it might not have been. In any case, I was only twelve or thirteen, so read it without really understanding what was going on in the play and I didn’t really think about it again until a friend of mine went to see the 2007 production starring Daniel Radcliffe.
I wasn’t able to see that production, but read nothing but good things about it, so when London Classic Theatre brought it Poole last night I went along and what a gripping piece of theatre it was. Peter Shaffer’s original in 1970s text is little changed over time, so the play has a timeless quality to it – the events we are witnessing and the emotions expressed could have occurred in any time. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The play begins as psychologist Martin Dysart is asked to see Alan Strang, a 17-year-old who has blinded six horses with a metal spike. The public want to see him locked away in prison, but Magistrate Hesther Saloman believes he needs Martin’s help and that this will benefit him more. The play then becomes almost a duel between Alan, who is initially uncommunicative and Martin who is trying to get to the truth of the matter – what could have possessed this boy to commit such a horrible act? As they stubbornly battle it out, it is revealed that Alan has an obsessive and almost primal love of horses and this mixed with his mother’s religious teachings has contributed to his state of mind.
I was captivated by this production, directed by Michael Cabot, as it was sparse yet evocative in everything from the set to the acting. The whole cast remained on stage throughout the evening acting almost as a Greek Chorus, and there was a claustrophobic sense to the evening. The set design included the six horses which were represented by wire horse heads (I can’t describe it properly, the photo below illustrates) which were used by some of the cast to ‘become’ the horses, but at all other times stared down at you, always looking, always following the action.
Speaking of the horses, they were represented beautifully by Aiden Downing, Steve Dineen and Jamie Matthewman – their almost balletic portrayal of these beautiful creatures, even while dressed in ordinary clothes, was wonderful to watch.
Malcolm James was excellent as the troubled psychologist – his final speech really brought to life the concept of who is the more insane, the patient or the man who spends nine years in a job he is beginning to loathe, married to a woman he has nothing in common with?
Although the entire cast was brilliant, I can’t not mention Matthew Pattimore who played Alan with a crazed awkwardness and Helen Phillips, who played Jill, the girl who sets off the chain of events by offering Alan a job. The sheer fact that they both had the guts to appear naked on stage gets my vote, but they played the scene with not a jot of embarrassment and never once broke the intensity of the moment.
The cast were also kind enough to take part in a discussion after the play and I wish I was bold enough to ask questions as there were so many things I wanted to know – thankfully the rest of the audience who stayed back were bolder than I and asked some great questions.
I really enjoyed finally seeing Equus, but I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is the right word – I was gripped by it and found it thoroughly absorbing and am grateful to have seen it, but I suppose the acid test is would I recommend it and I definitely, definitely would.