Theatre review: Equus
“There’s no merit about being in pain; that’s just pure old masochism.”
“I am talking about passion, Hesther, you know what that word originally meant: suffering,” says Dr Martin Dysart to his magistrate friend.
And it is this conundrum of exterminating passion in the process of curing his patient of pain that torments the child psychiatrist throughout Sir Peter Shaffer’s play.
Forty years ago, a British boy was found guilty of blinding horses in a small town near Suffolk. Why did he do it? What led the lad to perpetrate such unspeakable violence without apparent reason?
These questions preoccupy the fictitious doctor whom his fictitious friend, Hesther (excellent Sally Tatterson), compassionate in her refusal to convict the young offender, has approached. So, Martin sleuths away over the course of the 150-minute piece of theatre like a character in a 1970s detective novel.
Shaffer was not concerned with the actual motivations behind the real event. Instead, in producing a narrative in which all aspects were of his own invention except for the felony itself, he was more interested in creating (in his words) “a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible”.
As such, the multi-award winning playwright sketches the world 17-year-old Alan Strang is born into. His mother is a devout Christian who spends her nights reading biblical stories to the boy, while his father is an opinionated atheist who objects vehemently to his wife’s religious indoctrinations.
Through interviews with Alan, his parents, and the stable owner who hired the youth as a stable-hand only to end up with six blind horses, Martin slowly reaches into his patient’s visceral recesses and uncovers a raw and unusual prurience for horses.
Rather than trying to extricate his charge from this unseemly obsession, the doctor finds himself increasingly sympathetic to, if not envious of, Alan’s mental condition where devotion is unadulterated and love beyond complete.
In Chris Baldock’s exceptional production, we see the besotted young man locked with the casts by turns (outstanding Dylan Watson, Kellie Bray, Elijah Egan, Thomas Kay, Damien Harrison, Tilly Legge) all fitted with a vivid, wire, horsehead in a tender embrace like canoodling couples.
Scott Middleton’s Alan worships the spirit of the horse, Equus, that he encountered as a child, and that he sees residing in all horses, as his mother worships Jesus. He saw his god as a gentle and humble deity that willingly sacrifices itself for man to save them from their sins. The talented actor captures both the wide-eyed innocence of plain fervour and the brittle, deeply traumatised, nature of the teenager with stunning effect.
We observe how his mother, deftly drawn by Amanda McKay who, after imbuing in her son that sex is as spiritual as it is biological, blames the Devil for Alan’s emotions-fuelled behaviour. And how his father, cogently executed by Soren Jensen, denounces religion to be the ultimate culprit, without acknowledging his own secret desires. Together, they represent the society’s chilling oblivion to our inner existence.
Also, Maggie Chretien, who plays Jill — the lass with whom Alan’s love-making attempt is scuppered by his longing for horse not woman, and his fear of Equus’ jealous eyes — puts up an actorly eloquent performance.
But, it is Jeremy Kewley’s Martin that is most memorable, nonetheless. In his impassioned dilemma, the psychiatrist, who endures an insouciant relationship with his wife, sees himself as a masked surgeon carving up children and cutting away their souls, just so that they will be free from pain, and seen to be normal in the “spiritless waste” around them. He finds himself confronting Alan’s passion, Equus, that questions and accuses his profession.
Still, Mockingbird Theatre’s staging of this superb play would not be what it is without Baldock’s superlative vision. His consummate direction, with Jason Bovaird’s emotive lighting and Natasha Moszenin’s haunting soundtrack, see re-enactments rolling out seamlessly before us, as Martin probes and prods; there is not one stilted moment. Above all however it is his ingenious ability to draw us hook, line, and sinker, into both Alan and Martin’s most intimate sanctums that is utterly breathtaking.
Sir Shaffer should see this, see how Baldock must have fulfilled his theatrical object in every intricate way. And so should all of us.