When I first saw Peter Shaffer’s Equus well over 30 years ago, it struck me as one of the most unpleasant plays I had ever seen, so I approached London Classic Theatre’s production with more than usual interest. I still feel somewhat queasy at the sexual element in Alan Strang’s relationship with horses, but the blinding of the horses no longer seems like gratuitous sensationalism and actors and audiences are both less self-conscious about nude scenes now: the scene in question is totally necessary and extremely well staged.
The plot concerns a 17-year-old (Alan) who is guilty of blinding six horses with a spike. He is brought to a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, and is initially totally uncooperative. Dysart tricks and persuades him into reliving events and revealing his relationships with his parents, his girl-friend and, most of all, the horses. At the same time the psychiatrist confronts his own demons and even feels in some ways inadequate compared to Alan.
Now it is the more conventional elements that trouble me: the parents, for instance, strict father hiding an inferiority complex beneath a regard for learning, deeply religious mother feeling she married beneath her. The sources of Alan’s complexes (though admittedly not the extreme actions he takes) are laid out all too comfortably for the omniscient Dysart who pushes all the right buttons in his patient whilst sharing his conventional personal and professional angst with his rather unlikely confidante, the visiting magistrate.
By the end, however, I was more involved in the action and ideas of the play. The relationship between Alan and his father (Steve Dineen) takes a subtler and more sympathetic turn and the climactic scene in the stable is dramatic and powerful in the extreme. Both of these are helped by the presence of stable girl Jill Mason who, in Helen Phillips’ excellent performance, develops into the most convincing of the supporting parts.
In the two central parts Malcolm James and Matthew Pattimore grow with the production. James’ essentially self-effacing approach works well, with precision rather than passion the keynote except for a few well-judged agonised outbursts. Pattimore negotiates a bewildering set of responses successfully and finds the poetry in the part, as well as the violence.
Director Michael Cabot and designer Kerry Bradley make a virtue of necessity. Equus tours until July, playing everything from sizeable theatres to arts centres, so an elaborate staging is impossible. The minimalist set of moveable blocks, aided by Paul Green’s atmospheric lighting, sets the mood well and also aids the smooth flow from action to narration to recollection.