“You’re out there with the cowboys”
Track suits and gloves of chestnut velour, anyone? Well, maybe in 1973 when Equus first cantered and careered into stage history. Now, we’ve lost the strutted hooves and it’s black Sculpt Tight leggings and sports bras. No matter, for this is a super fit production and the horses look the part. Do not, under any circumstances, think germinal, theatrical, War Horse, for director Emily Aboud achieves blinding drama.
Literally. Alan Strang (17) took a hoof pick to four horses and put out their eyes. (It was six in the original production but play fair with Bedlam’s space). Martin Dysart is the psychiatrist who gets inside Alan’s head to see what went ‘wrong’ and – maybe – to make him ‘well’. These are troubled and relative terms, as becomes extremely clear. Dysart reports Alan’s story as Alan tells it and is assisted by the testimony of parents, girlfriend and employer, and in so doing lays bare his own obsessions and vulnerability. This is one treatment plan where the word sacrificial does not beggar belief.
The two principals are admirable. Douglas Clark as Alan is lean, hurting, and his voice breaks from soft assent to pain and furious anger with remarkable force. His few scenes with Jill (Chloe Allen), his unexpected girl, are both tender and acutely awkward. He is also, in the extraordinary last scene of Act One, and alone with Equus, in complete control of what could be disastrously affected language. Charley Cotton plays Dysart as the decent doctor who has just about given up on the prescription ‘to heal thyself’. His dreadful marriage – to a Scottish dentist! – is as neatly dissected as his vain hopes to discover real pagan Greece in his Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus.
Designer Emiline Beroud respects Peter Shaffer’s original setting. The cast is on stage throughout, sitting at the back or to the sides when not performing. The centre stage is railed off on two sides and provides consulting room and stable floor. The horse masks hang left and right. Bedlam cannot accommodate the back-drop of tiers of seats, as if in an old anatomy lecture theatre, so Dysart’s talk becomes more confessional than public spirited and – if anything – more characterised by what Shaffer called its ‘dry agony’.
And the visual action is extraordinarily effective. That’s a lot of rehearsal time, I reckon. Mimetic movement, snap-tight lighting (predominately blue) and an electric beat do deliver Shaffer’s choric element. When these horses move and when one is ridden you’re out there with the cowboys of Alan’s wishes. When it all goes dark, in between the strobe flashes, it’s a stampede of the mind.
Equus has an awesome reputation and that’s in the classical, God fearing sense of the word but its notoriety has probably gone and it might seize up and appear contrived. There was some first night stiffness to the supporting roles but for the most part this exacting production gives its language and ideas free rein and exciting liberty.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 March)
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