Equus at Bath Theatre Royal

IN these days, when there are debates about the wisdom of sex education in schools for children under the age of ten, to make a highly charged drama out of the reason why a 17-year-old boy unable to cope with his first sexual experience is driven to blind six horses he loves, may seem to be  more than a little dated.

This play was first seen at the National Theatre in 1973, when the country was only just beginning to settle down again after the massive social changes of the “swinging sixties” and the gap between childhood and adulthood could still be quite wide.

This brilliant piece of writing by Peter Shaffer draws together so many more themes than just the sexual awakening of Alan Strang.  His equating of the staring eyes of the horse in the portrait facing the end of his bed which his dominating father has forced on him as a replacement for that of the crucified Christ placed there before by his over religious Mother, all combining to drag this sensitive boy into brutally disfiguring the thing he loves.

Director Ned Bennett decided that nothing should be placed in the way of Shaffer’s dialogue. Setting the production on an empty stage, a square box of high curtains, no stage dressing and only a couple of minimal props, some entrances and exits are even made by ducking under the rear curtain.

With all the principal characters restricted to one costume there are no visual aids to help Ethan Kai as Alan and Zubin Varla as Martin Dysart the physiatrist attempting to unravel the reasons behind this unbelievable act of brutality, develop  their personal relationship, and it is here that the production falters.

For all his intense playing, Ethan Kai does not paint a fully convincing picture of an immature 17-year-old in whose mind the onset of adulthood, desire to please Father and Mother, religion, the crucifiction and love of the noble Equus, are all as muddled as our present Parliament’s thinking on Brexit.

When those noble beasts appear, played wonderfully stylistically, with no physical aids or puppetry, with lighting and sound adding to the effect, the final scene leading to the blinding is frightening in its intensity, Ethan’s whole performance moves onto  a far higher plane.

In a less spectacular manner Zubin Varla’s rather too subdued and self-doubting psychiatrist provides a fine probing support during these dramatic climaxes. We also see more of the reasons why Ruth Lass, showing signs of genuine concern as the thoughtful magistrate intent on finding the reasons behind Alan’s brutal actions, chose Martin Dysart to investigate this mystery. A far more real man emerges as we discover the inadequacies of his personal life.

This is a production full of fascinating ideas, not all of which prove to be as good as they looked on paper. Did they make this complex play more accessible to a new modern audience? If I  am to take the word of one of the school party who left the theatre in front of me, not quite.

Her reply to the question “Well what did you think of that?” was “interesting, but confusing.”

The English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East co-production continues until Saturday 6th April.


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