PETER Wintle first saw Peter Shaffer’s play Equus in 1976, three years after I saw the first production at the National Theatre.
It has always been one of the most controversial plays among Shaffer’s extraordinarily varied body of work, recently in the public eye again with Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe in the leading role of Alan Strang, the boy who blinds horses.
Inspired by a court case in East Anglia dealing with a teenager who blinded horses in a field, Shaffer sought an explanation for the atrocity. Equus is his own version of what might have happened, weaving personal disillusion, political and social pressures and an overarching longing for something to worship.
It is set in a psychiatric hospital where Dr Martin Dysart deals with the behavioural problems of children, and is reaching the end of his tether. But magistrate Hester Salomon persuades her bench that the horse blinder, Alan, needs help more than he needs punishment, and persuades Dysart to take on one more patient.
Dysart is a dreamer, a classicist whose holidays are spent in the ruins of ancient Greece, studying images of the old gods. His reality is a joyless, passionless marriage and mounting questions about the effectiveness of the “treatment” he provides to his patients.
When Alan Strang appears, singing snatches of television advertisements and sub-consciously longing to explain his obsessive worship of horses, Dysart meets his nemesis.
This brilliant and timeless play, exploring human nature in the raw, requires a stylised approach and impeccable acting – a challenge for any actor, professional or amateur.
Peter Wintle’s cast at Street carried it off to perfection, the production cleverly and simply set and subtly lit (by James Linham) and performed as in its original production, with an “audience” on stage, from which the protagonists emerge to perform their roles, and the “horses” a constant presence.
Any production of Equus depends on the availabilty of a young actor who can embody Alan Strang, transforming him from the cruel savage that society wants to see locked away for life to an awestruck, frightened and damaged youth unable to express the most basic of emotions. In Matt Townsend, the company had a remarkable performer who encapsulated both the physical and psychological anguish of the boy who blinds the things he best loves so they cannot see his failure. It was a performance that will stay long in the memory of all those who saw it.
Dysart, in a compelling and tortured performance by Neil Howiantz, is “on stage” throughout the play, as he discusses his own life with the magistrate (Lois Harbinson), and Alan’s behaviour with his parents, the hypocritical, catch-phrase spouting and dictatorial old Socialist Frank (Jerry Jeremiah), the downtrodden Dora (Olwen Herridge) and with the furious stable owner Dalton.
The tricks of the treatment, dispensed over long hours late into the night, eventually bring Alan to a place of peace, but, as Dysart wryly observes, a place without passion or soul, in among the rest of the joyless worker ants of the human race.
This is not a hopeful or life affirming play, and while Saturday’s audience at Strode Theatre might have given the performances a standing ovation, they left in silence.
Peter Wintle’s production worked, as well as he could possibly have hoped. GP-W
Peter Wintle’s photograph shows Matt Townsend as Alan Strang and Eliane Morgan as Jill Mason