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'Isn't that the one where Daniel Radcliffe got his kit off – the play that became famous because of that a few years ago?' a colleague asks, just before I head off to see the current run of Peter Shaffer's 1973 drama about a disturbed adolescent and the potentially disturbed psychiatrist treating him.
'Mmmm sort of...' is my response.
And to tell the truth, before seeing this current production at Trafalgar Studios, I hadn't remembered much from the last version I had seen (at university) except obscurities and nudity, which is what a lot of people remember about this play.
But it is so much more and transcends being the vehicle Daniel Radcliffe used to get past Harry Potter. It is a taut series of exchanges, exceedingly well written with an exceedingly well judged verbal economy, pulling at a young mind to get at the route of a traumatic and horrifying episode and the factors that influence and seem to leave the adolescent character in question no choice but to commit that violent and defining act.
The buildup for the audience is precise and enveloping. Georgia Lowe's sparse set design pares back an environment in which we get two psyches laid bare, that of Alan Strang, the disturbed adolescent, played with an expertly constrained yet ferocious energy by Ethan Kai, and Martin Dysart, the child psychologist who reluctantly agrees to treat him.
All credit to director Ned Bennett's decision to use as few props as possible. Instead he relies on Shelley Maxwell's brilliant choreography and a cast of incredibly talented performers to contort themselves physically into seemingly impossible poses as they effortlessly gallop and canter through the darkest chapters of Strang's childhood in Dysart's attempt to navigate to a root cause of his bizarre, equine-focused obsession. The way in which movement is orchestrated onstage balletically illustrates the intense and tumultuous conflict between a young boy's fire-and-brimstone-believing mother and his austere and repressed but devoutly Marxist father which comes to a crescendo at the end of both acts in the richest, most colorful and most haunting of ways.
Zubin Varla's performance as Dysart is simply magnificent. So incredibly well measured and controlled as to allow us, intimately and slowly, into the mind of a character, frustrated by the mundanity of life, and recognising and even becoming enamoured with anything that transcends that mundanity, including a young boy's neurotic fixation with horses. It is a study in our sophomoric attitudes towards psychology and children in society and Varla expertly articulates what is more and more Dysart's inner turmoil and by association, a conflict that plays out in all our heads even after the curtain falls, with nuance and powerful physical tension.
Like Saki's Sredni Vashtar, a tale in which a young boy, in response to an oppressive carer, sets up a religion that ends up being unsettlingly destructive, this play is a riveting tale of obsession, the dark power of imagination, and a lament for the lack of it.
Equus is challenging and unmissable. Which is probably why Radcliffe chose it as a vehicle to help him get past Harry Potter.
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