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Equus at The Lowry - Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83
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HorseBoy of the Apocalypse
It's fitting that Peter Shaffer's drama should have a Greek-sounding name as it has a suitably brutal premise.

In a Note on the Text, Peter Shaffer, whose play was first performed at the Old Vic Theatre in 1973, commented: "I was driving with a friend through bleak countryside. We passed a stable. Suddenly he was reminded by it of an alarming crime which he had heard about recently at a dinner party in London."

He added: "I knew very strongly that I wanted to interpret it in some entirely personal way. I had to create a mental world in which the deed could be made comprehensible
."
Peter Shaffer, Equus (London: Penguin Classic, 1974)

Equus, English Touring Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, theatre, Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Norah Lopez Holden, Peter Shaffer, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Ethan Kai
EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan (Nugget) and Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) Image: ©The Other Richard.


Alan Strang, has blinded six horses with a metal spike. The magistrate (played by Ruth Lass) persuades the court that a psychiatric hospital is a better option for the 17-year-old than prison.

Alan Strang is played by Ethan Kai. It's a part which Daniel Radcliffe performed at the Gielgud Theatre (London) and the Broadhurst Theatre (Broadway, New York) in 2007 - 2008.

Equus, English Touring Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, theatre, Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Norah Lopez Holden, Peter Shaffer
EQUUS. Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) and Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart). Image: ©The Other Richard.


This is the first time I have seen Equus so I can't compare Ethan Kai's portrayal with Daniel Radcliffe or any other actor. However, Kai conveys with entrancing intensity the mix of vulnerability and devilment which makes Alan so unsettling but also gives us just enough hope that he will somehow redeem himself.

The paradox is that Alan is enraptured by horses - even to the point of monomania. He spends his lunchtimes staring into the stables, where he eventually gains employment with the help of fellow horse-devotee and the more sexually confident - Jill (Norah Lopez Holden).

: Equus, English Touring Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, theatre, Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Norah Lopez Holden
EQUUS. Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) and Norah Lopez Holden (Jill Mason). Image: ©The Other Richard


Equus (the Latin name for horse) is essentially a why-done-it. Even if Alan is just a juvenile sadist why did he choose this very specific expression of violence?

Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla) is the psychiatrist charged with finding out whether there was a why to Alan's brutality and what part his parents might have played in his maladjusted development. Martin is a respected professional but also one whose doubts about his profession have been "piling up for years."

His marriage has also become drained of passion (he reads passages from Homer's Iliad to his wife, which is maybe not what a marriage guidance advisor would recommend).

Alan learns of Martin's relationship woes and uses them in 'retaliation' to the psychiatrist's probing. Shaffer artfully constructs a dynamic between patient and professional. Neither will get closer to the truth without re-opening their own wounds. "He asks questions I've avoided all my life," Martin confides to us.

There is a danger that the doctor's philosophical angst and self-examination will rob the play of energy. This does threaten to happen in the second half. The production lasts for two hours forty-five minutes (with an interval). So, in the last section, it's hard not to become impatient for the denouement.

But physical vitality is injected into the production by Shelley Maxwell's Movement Direction. Ira Mandela Siobhan has an astonishing ability to convey the graceful power of a horse. He manages to do this without it ever descending into pantomime or pretentiousness.

Composer and Sound Designer Giles Thomas adds a suitably discordant dimension to the production. Lighting Designer Jessica Hung Han Yun assaults us with the chaotic terror of Alan's nightmares.

: Equus, English Touring Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, theatre, Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Norah Lopez Holden, Peter Shaffer
EQUUS. Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image: ©The Other Richard.


The use of fluorescent flashes of light to convey mental distress reminded me of a similarly effective use in HOME's production of People, Places & Things

Georgia Lowe's design wisely stays rooted in the 1970s - from the wooden-effect television set to Jill's flared jeans. This is fitting because the play was written at a particular time in the evolution of psychiatric treatment and it needs to be understood in this context.

That said, issues about how young offenders should be treated are still very much in the news - especially in relation to those who have committed the most heinous crimes. The questions that Equus so compellingly dramatises are very unlikely to ever become dated.

Equus is a co-production between UK Theatre Award winners English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East.

After the performances at the Lowry, it can be seen at Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne (30 April - 4 May) and Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (7 - 11 May).

Equus, English Touring Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, theatre, Salford Quays, Lowry Centre, Norah Lopez Holden, Peter Shaffer
Equus film 1977. Equusposter77 Fair use,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16844774


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Why? Compelling Why-Done-It Psychodrama and Dance
When: Lowry (Tuesday 23 - Saturday 27 April) and Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne (30 April - 4 May) and Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (7 - 11 May)
Phone: 0343 208 6000
Where: Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays M50 3AZ
Cost: From £22.50
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