Horse Play: Equus @Trafstudios #EquusWestEnd


Peter Shaffer's play Equus is given a slick and stylised turn in this English Touring Company production that's currently playing on the West End at Trafalgar Studios. With everything stripped back to the bare essentials, all that's left is a white curtain, muscles and guilt. And the occasion flash or scream. If you missed it earlier this year at Theatre Royal Stratford East, see it now as it's a fresh look at this psychological thriller.

The premise of the piece is that seventeen-year-old Alan (played by Ethan Kai with moody intensity), has blinded six horses in a stable he worked in on weekends. Rather than go to jail, he's sent to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.  And where Dysart (Zubin Varla) has to uncover the motive for this madness.

Even if it was inspired by a real-life crime, it's rather clever of Schaffer to focus on cruelty to horses in England. Nothing surely can be more shocking in a country that worships the very ground the equine beast trots on. That is the real horror and almost makes you overlook that the play attributes Alan's horse worship to an overzealous mother and an indifferent father. Although Alan takes that worship to a new level.

But in this production, the 1970s psychological analysis takes a backseat to emotions and feelings. This gives the play a stronger focus as the 1970s "normality" is treated like being trapped in a sitcom where characters are uptight and restrained. Ready to snap an entire tray of biscuits but nothing else.

Varla as Dysart excels at luring us into this world of manners and anxiety as a man on the edge. But he also takes us to a darker side with Alan. Making him part storyteller, part therapist, and part patient.

Underscoring this is lighting and sound effects that create the unsteady and shifting moods of the characters. It's as if you're never quite sure what you just saw as intense colours explode and disappear.

The ensemble works well to support the story and the supporting characters. But the physicality and movement are astonishing when they play the horses that feature throughout the piece. They move their necks as if they're manes. And flex their muscles full of ticks and twitches as they're ready to gallop. And when it reaches it’s full frontal nudity climax, the physicality of it all takes your breath away.

A piece about random acts of cruelty seemed jarring to watch in the week when a young man was arrested for attempted murder at the Tate Modern. There's little in the play that will give insight into real peoples pain and anguish. But this stylish and physical production gives a raw and gripping take on this famous play and brings out its layers of meaning.

Directed by Ned Bennett, Equus is currently playing at Trafalgar Studios.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️



Photos by The Other Richard

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