I’ve often complained about the move towards a directors’ theatre. But directors can also renew a familiar work – which is precisely what Ned Bennett does in his exhilarating staging of Peter Shaffer’s modern classic. I was present at the first performance in 1973 but, without violating the text, Bennett’s production has enabled me to see the play through fresh eyes.
Shaffer shows a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, attempting to discover what drove a teenage boy, Alan Strang, to blind six horses with a metal spike: it is not so much a whodunnit as a why-did-he-do-it? Dysart patiently explores Alan’s parental background – a puritanical father, an obsessively religious mother – and the boy’s preoccupation with horses. But, while Dysart envies the boy’s capacity for worship, he only gets to the truth when he tricks Alan into reliving the events of the night of the blinding.
Shaffer’s published stage directions are modelled on John Dexter’s original production: “the actors wear tracksuits of chestnut velvet” and “tough masks of silver wire and leather”. But Bennett, designer Georgia Lowe and movement director Shelley Maxwell have totally reimagined this. The opening image is of Ethan Kai’s Alan nuzzling a horse in the shape of Ira Mandela Siobhan, who sports grey shorts and reveals a muscular torso. The eroticism of the relationship pays off later when Alan orgasmically bestrides the horse in question, Nugget, and when that memory intrudes on his attempt to have sex with a stable-girl. An idea latent in Shaffer’s text, of Alan’s equine fixation as a metaphor for same-sex love, is made explicit in Bennett’s production.
The play’s difficulty lies with Dysart. Alec McCowen played him brilliantly in the original production as a desiccated rationalist with a hunger for ecstasy.
Zubin Varla takes a different, and equally valid approach by suggesting that Dysart is just as disturbed as his patient. Varla smokes compulsively, his body is a mass of nervous tics and, when he tells Alan that he had a dream of carving up children, you feel he is not entirely joking. I’ve always felt there was something excessive about Dysart’s self-loathing, but here his regrets about returning Alan to a world of supposed normality take on a different meaning: it is as if he feels guilty not just for destroying his passion but for altering his sexual orientation.
The whole production, however, has a different feel to it from the original. What is usually a play for two stars, depicting Shaffer’s familiar battle between reason and instinct, becomes an ensemble piece for eight actors who double as people and horses. There is especially good work from Ruth Lass as a kindly magistrate seeking to stave off Dysart’s breakdown, Robert Fitch as Alan’s oppressive father, Syreeta Kumar as his Bible-quoting mother and Norah Lopez Holden as his would-be lover. Lowe’s design, composed of pristine white curtains, is appropriately clinical while opening up to reveal a world of smoke-filled mystery. Jointly presented by Stratford East and English Touring Theatre, this production confirms that Bennett is a director to watch. It also proves that Equus, among many other things, is a landmark homoerotic play.