Okay, so there was that 2007 production in which a youthful Daniel Radcliffe whipped out his magic wand. But the fact of the matter is that Peter Shaffer’s operatic psychodrama ‘Equus’ isn’t revived that often, considering its fame and stature. The shocking subject matter – it’s about a 17-year-old boy who has blinded six horses – has something to do with it. But really, John Dexter’s original 1973 production was simply so definitive that subsequent generations have struggled with the question of how one can do it differently – Thea Sharrock’s D-Rad-rocking revival more or less reused the metal-frame horses from the original.
Ned Bennett’s transferring production for English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East feels like an answer of sorts. It can’t reinvent the wheel. But it does make ‘Equus’ feel painfully fresh.
The year is still 1973. Or it is for the beige-clad older characters, notably Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla), a mentally agile but self-doubting child psychiatrist who reluctantly agrees to take on the shocking case of Alan Strang (Ethan Kai), and find out how the boy’s love of horses twisted into his terrible act of mutilation.
Intense, buff and strange, Kai’s troubled Alan looms over Dysart and his weary ’70s England like glowering figure of myth. Even more exotic are the horses. There are no masks; the creatures are entirely generated by Shelley Maxwell’s extraordinary choreography and the physicality of performers Ira Mandela Siobhan and Keith Gilmore. They’re remarkable and disturbing, sinuously convulsing creatures halfway between a Ted Hughes animal poem and an S&M fantasy.
Dysart is drab by comparison, and he knows it. Fascinated by the spiritual rites of ancient Greece, and chased by a dream in which he is an Aztec priest committing endless child sacrifices, he is bitterly aware of his wan Englishness. Zarla is one of our most versatile actors, and he’s perfect here, not melodramatically tortured, but lisping, diminutive and terribly self-conscious; his sterile exhaustion underscores the allure of Alan’s virile wildness.
As Dysart draws closer to the wild horse god that lives in Alan’s mind, Bennett and his team create the sense of... something greater and scarier than humdrum humanity. There’s the primal physicality of the horses, but also Giles Thomas’s wonderfully ominous sound design, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s thrilling horror-movie lighting.
Elements of ‘Equus’ feel a touch dated, stemming from an era when we knew less about psychiatry and thought differently about our children. But Bennett works around that in an exhilarating and disturbing production that always stays true to the thrust of Shaffer’s play: that unfathomable wonders and terrors exist inside our heads, and that there is a tragedy in our need to kill them.