Equus by Peter Shaffer
Equus, Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man convicted of blinding six horses.
Over the weekend we were lucky enough to catch the touring version at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre. The play opened at the National Theatre in 1973 and was subsequently performed all over the world. There was a film version by Sidney Lumet with Richard Burton and
Colin Peter Firth, for which the two leads and Shaffer were nominated for Oscars.
The touring company is led by Simon Callow as the psychiatrist, and by Alfie Allen (brother of Lily, recently seen in the feature film Atonement) as Alan Strang, the boy with a pathological religious/sexual fascination with horses. The horses are played superbly by six actors wearing heavy metal masks and shoes. The magic of theatre done well leaves you in no doubt of their authenticity from start to finish.
Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Callow) is presented with a challenging case by magistrate Hesther Salsman (Linda Thorson). Alan Strang (Allen) presents like a normal seventeen year old. At first sight his life is routine and he lives in the bosom of a loving family. Through a series of events in his childhood he has developed a passion for horses and recently he has been involved in an initial sexual experience with Jill (Laura O’Toole) a stable-hand. The results have been devastating. He is an unresponsive patient who is woken each night by nightmares. And it is now up to Dysart to resolve this psychological puzzle.
A child is born into a world of phenomena,
all equal in their power to enslave.
It sniffs, it sucks, it strokes its eyes
over the whole, uncountable range.
Suddenly, one strikes.
Then another. Then another.
Moments snap together,
like magnets forging a chain of shackes.
And there certainly is something of a detective story in the formal structure of the play. We know almost from the beginning what has happened. But our imagination cannot deduce the sequence or the reasoning behind the events we know have taken place. Dysart (Simon Callow), the psychiatrist is deep in the midst of his own mid-life crisis, and Shaffer loses no opportunity to compare and contrast the worlds of doctor and patient. Strang’s (Allen) parents, his Christian mother and Atheist father have their own guilt to deal with, their own fears and insecurities to work through, and their own justifications to make. Though the play, although it does use Freudian theory, never strays into the hackneyed territory of the psychological thriller.
Instead, Shaffer has thrown into the pot of Freudian theory and Christian imagery the whole contemporary issue of meaning and identity. The question underlying the play is: What makes life worth living? Is it what we, in the west, have been very busy carving out for ourselves.? Is it safety and security? Or is it passion?
On an intellectual level the play never flags. It contains argument and reference enough to keep you thinking from scene to scene and act to act, and when the final curtain comes down you continue to think and talk about the experience. The group I was with talked together well into the wee hours, and I could imagine other groups of theatre-goers who had seen the play were similarly reluctant to go to bed.
But perhaps even more than the obvious intellectual stimulation, what I took from Equus was the genius of the writing. Broad brush-strokes, like the coup of setting the main action of the play in a stable, the hallowed ground of Christian tradition.
And fine detail in the language of the play, the metaphors and single-word allusions to, for example, the ‘reining’ in of the boy’s excesses; quite apart from the obvious sexual references to the sweat and tackle associated with the magnificent animals who come to represent deity in the mind of the boy who is the centre of all our concerns and the ‘only son’ of his benighted mother.
The tour has moved on from Sheffield now, so you’ll have to catch it at one of the following venues. Let me know what you think:
Monday 21 – Saturday 26 April
New Road BRIGHTON
Box Office 09800 606650
Monday 28 April – Saturday 3 May
Morley Street BRADFORD
Box Office 01274 432000
Monday 5 – Saturday 10 May
Box Office 01225 448844
Monday 12 – Saturday 17 May
Grange Road MALVERN
Box Office 01684 892277
Monday 19 – Saturday 24 May
The Green RICHMOND
Box Office 0870 060 6651