Equus, Theatre Royal Stratford East

Image result for equus stratford east

by Laura Kressly

Sex and power rule the world – or at least they do in the 1970s, little England hospital where Peter Shaffer’s play unfolds. A child psychologist, known for his successful rehabilitation of troubled children, is questioning the value and morals of his work. At the same time, he reluctantly takes on a new patient, a young man who inexplicably committed a horrific crime that has rocked the local community. As the pair spar their way through the lad’s therapy sessions, both reveal secrets they are ashamed to keep.

Shaffer’s script originally sets the action in a largely featureless square evoking a farm or pasture, and director Ned Bennett goes a step further by confining them in a blindingly white box. The white fabric amplifies the clinical environment, but the peacefully blank landscape is the opposite of Dr Dysart and Alan Strang’s minds. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting is largely naturalistic, but in moments of extreme emotional turmoil, staticky outbursts of deep colours initially more like blinks  progress into aggressive washes. The sound design by Giles Thomas is smartly in sync with the lighting states, making for an effectively jarring, expressionist landscape of colour and sound.

Zubin Varla is the tormented Dr Dysart trapped in this white box who, discontent with his life, is jealous of his ill patient. Though this is a problematic romanticizing of mental illness, it is clear that his discontent with his work and marriage is badly affecting him. Ethan Kai is the fearless and angry Alan, a young man tangled up in parental conflict, religion and sexual desire. The conservatism around these topics and the inability with his 17-year-old brain to cope with the muddle drives him to commit an act so heinous that he can’t even speak of it.

Shaffer deftly choreographs a therapeutic progression of scenes that becomes a dance between Varla and Kai, and complemented by the physical work from the ensemble. Particularly notable is Ira Mandela Siobhan, who embodies Alan’s favourite horse. His muscular isolations are a thing of wonder – a shoulder ripples here, a neck extends there, a hoof prances. Movement director Shelley Maxwell must also be praised for the precision and exactness that each actor uses to construct and signify their characters.

There is, really, little to fault here. Bennett brings some particularly dated concepts into the present, and it is only rarely that we are reminded we aren’t in the present day. The cast are united in their chemistry and undeniably present, and no design element is out of place. There is a lack of scale that the original production script’s stage directions fill with horse masks, but the expression of those embodying the horses is unobstructed here – they are stripped bare, down to the essence of the animal, if you will.

A marvelous production of a play that could easily come across dated, Ned Bennett once again excels at peeling back the layers of deeply troubled characters.

Equus runs through 23 March, then tours.

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