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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

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.

Why?

Moments snap together,
like magnets forging a chain of shackes.

Why?

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
Theatre Royal
New Road BRIGHTON
Box Office 09800 606650

Monday 28 April – Saturday 3 May
Alhambra Theatre
Morley Street BRADFORD
Box Office 01274 432000

Monday 5 – Saturday 10 May
Theatre Royal
Sawclose BATH
Box Office 01225 448844

Monday 12 – Saturday 17 May
Festival Theatre
Grange Road MALVERN
Box Office 01684 892277

Monday 19 – Saturday 24 May
Richmond Theatre
The Green RICHMOND
Box Office 0870 060 6651

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15 Responses to “Equus by Peter Shaffer”

  1. Kristin says:

    No. No. No.
    The film had PETER Firth as Alan Strang.
    Colin Firth is the actor who so famously leapt into the pond in Pride and Prejudice. Peter Firth now plays Harry Pearce on Spooks.

    jb says: Thanks, Kristin. Sorry Peter. And Colin.

  2. Maxine says:

    I remember seeing the original NT production with Paul Scofield as the psychatrist: F Murray Abraham just did not cut it for me (and yes, indeed, it was Peter Firth).
    Interesting that Simon Callow should be taking the Scofield/Abraham role, he was also in the movie as the Papageno character.
    I don’t think I’d want to see this play again now, having seen both the original and the (inferior) movie: but if I had the chance to see Daniel Radcliffe, as US theatre goers will have the chance next year, I might change my mind.

    jb says: Hi Maxine. I also saw the first production, way back when, though I was very young. It is, nevertheless, interesting to see how well it has stood the test of time.

  3. Kristin says:

    Oooh. My post was really grouchy. Sorry.
    I’ve only ever seen the film, so I’m curious about how this would play on stage. Maybe I’ll try and see Daniel Radcliffe when he’s here in the US.

    jb says: I suppose it’s obvious, but it’s much easier to interpret the horses as symbolic when you aren’t dealing with real horses. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. Grouchy’s a good word isn’t it?

  4. Ruth H says:

    Caught Equus at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. I think we caught it on an off-night. Pacing seemed all wrong, lines dropped, marks missed, cues lost…

    The play itself is a tour de force and a real favourite; what seemed to be lacking from last night’s performance was a sense of soul, or urgency, or… worship?

    Not sure went wrong last night as it’s evident that the cast members are all more than capable of delivering a real blinder of a performance – might just be getting it on its feet in a new space – might be that they’re all a bit bored of it? Who knows?

    jb says: What a pity, Ruth. But I suppose that’s always a possibility with live performance. One thing different or even one member of the cast below par can lead to everyone losing the plot.

  5. Janet says:

    Saw the play for the first time at Malvern and it was brilliant with excellent performances from the main characters. Powerful exciting play.

  6. allan says:

    Saw the play last year with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths, excellent, moving ,powerful.

    Saw it again last night with Simon Callow and Alfie Allen, excellent, poweful, moving. Linda Thorson was also impressive.

  7. Dave says:

    Saw the last night of the tour at Richmond yesterday evening. Quite a special evening, the play was superb and as disturbing as it should be. Being the last night, there were plenty of celebs there (must have been a great party afterwards!), and extra joy was to be had from Peter Shaffer attending and sitting in the seats directly behind us. A curtain-call speech from Simon Callow was a rarity, an ovation for Sir Peter, and a chance for us to shake his hand and thank him for such a nice piece of work.
    A marvelous evening’s theatre.

    jb says: Sounds like a good evening, Dave. Glad you could make it.

  8. Christine says:

    I’m so glad this is coming to Broadway: I just ordered December tickets for my 15 y/o daughter and me. Saw it a few times here in NYC the 1970s and sat on the stage all but one: Hopkins, Perkins and Burton were “my” Dysarts, and Peter Firth and Thomas Hulce were the Alans. Moments of those productions still resonate. I think it’s good that Radcliffe is avoiding watching the film version, which for me did not compare.

    jb says: You’ll enjoy it, Christine, though you certainly have some moments to compare it with.

  9. Stephen Hopkins says:

    Saw the play at Richmond theatre on Saturday nght. An amazing theatrical experience, thoroughly absorbing and gripping.

    jb says: Hi Stephen. It’s so good to share things.

  10. Christine says:

    I’m rereading the play now. I’m wondering if Sir Peter knows HH Munro’s short story “Sredni Vashtar.” A sardonic little tale with a much different tone and theme, but the two works do share a common thread.

    jb says: Interesting comments, Christine. I’d never put them together before, but I see your point. Saki’s short story is online here.

  11. Christine says:

    I’d meant to post the link, so thanks.

    An old (BBC?) production of “Sredni Vashtar” is available in three parts on YouTube:

  12. davee says:

    has anyone seen the broadway version (at the broadhurst) – curious how it compares the ones reviewed above.

  13. Laura says:

    Saw the Broadway (Broadhurst) version this past January, it was fantastic. I was very familiar with the script, having read it several times, and I thought that the 2009 production was incredible. I found out later that Shaffer had personally done the script editting for the performances, which was pretty cool. My college is performing the show this season for the 20th anniversary of our main stage, it was the first play ever performed on College of Charleston’s stage in the Simons Center for the Arts.

  14. sharon meyer says:

    The original cast at the Old Vic did indeed feature a very young Colin Firth as the young lead.

  15. Jacob McP. says:

    I realize this blog posting is now about 4 years old, but I came across it searching for EQUUS by Peter Shaffer.

    I live in Hawaii and am very active in local theater. I just portrayed Dysart in a university production here, and I am reeling from the experience. I’ve been acting for over 40 years and have had some life-changing experiences on stage, yet this play embraced me. It gave me a new found worship for my passion of theatrical arts.

    I happen to have a degree related to classics, so the imagery was particularly poignant for Dysart’s lines, and I would, indeed, “like to spend 10 years wandering very slowly around the real Greece.”

    What strikes me most about the script is the relationship that builds between Dysart and Alan. The doctor eviscerates himself to bring normality to the boy. In the penultimate scene, the boy chooses to rid himself of his god, and then in the ultimate scene, the doctor chooses the Normal world over one of Worship.

    I am very lucky for the opportunity to voice Dysart’s lines by the great Peter Shaffer. “I can hear the creature’s voice. It’s calling me out of the black cave of the Psyche.” The experience will never leave me.

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