‘My love is as a fever, longing still, for that which longer nurseth the disease’ Sonnet 147
English Touring Theatre Company and Theatre Royal Stratford East combine skills with director Ned Bennett to create a retelling of Equus, Peter Shaffer’s twisted play based on the true-to-life story of a seventeen year old boy who blinded six horses. Shaffer imagines the sessions between child-psychologist Dr Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) and Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), the boy who mutilated the horses.
Fear of children is innate in our culture; there is a proclivity for identical twins to march into every other horror story: even babies have been imbued with peculiar sense that they know something the rest of us don’t – think of the ominous perambulator containing Rosemary’s Baby. Classic texts such as Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory and Robert Cormier’s dark and complex I am the Cheese depict these estranged, complicated minds which contradict the idea that children are unassuming, flower-wielding things.
My point is, children in literature are often bad news, and anyone who has watched any horror film knows that indoctrinating one’s child with religious imagery is only going to have them reciting it creepily, and probably exorcising dark spirits at the end of their bed. Apparently Alan Strang’s mum doesn’t know that.
Enter: Alan Strang, who, during psychiatric sessions, gradually reveals his broken mind. Strang is captivating, and his mind never fully present as his dark stare indicates. His misplaced worship, as he hides a deep passion for horses, is as intriguing as it is destructive, and culminates in a virile, reverberating re-enactment of his riding of Nugget, the horse with whom he seems to share a deep illicit bond. Strang is lost in a vault of his own making; his obsession is almost sadistic as he reveals their allure: at any moment they could trample him to smithereens. That the horses choose not to is a fact which consumes Strang.
The white horse on Strang’s poster, like Melville’s white whale lurking in the ‘watery vault’ of the ocean, is a terrifying ‘unnatural’ offcut of nature. Its visage appears for a haunting moment at the back of the stage, reminiscent of the terrifying Donnie Darko rabbit. This imagery is repeated throughout the play; a hospital trolley is rolled across the back of the stage stacked ominously with skulls.
The staging is brilliant; tall white billowing sheets frame a white cube: it is clinical, sapped of passion; a perfect contrast to Strang’s bubbling obsession. When they inevitably fall at the height of the play, they tumble down with the weight of many, many metaphors. It is still striking; the horses cast dramatic shadows at the back of the stage; we are overcome with the vastness and dominance of the equine creatures almost as much as Strang is.
The movement of the ‘horses’ is outstanding, thanks to Shelley Maxwell, the movement director who has previously toured with The Lion King. Nugget appears at the beginning of the play with each movement of his muscular body menacing and deliberate - smoke comes out of his nostrils as he exhales, and the mythological, god-like horse is before us. A thrilling and urgent revival.
Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor