FringeReview UK 2019
A Stratford East and English Touring Theatre production, directed by Ned Bennett featuring Shelley Maxwell’s new choreography, fresh set and costume design by Georgia Lowe, lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun, with Giles Thomas’ composition and sound design, orchestrated by Robert Sword. Till September 7th.
When Thea Sharrock revived Peter Shaffer’s 1973 Equus in 2007 (with Daniel Radcliffe’s wand the draw) John Dexter’s original leather-and-iron masks meant we saw this extraordinary play in aspic. That’s one reason why we hardly ever see it. Dexter’s definitive production – those horse-masks girt with iron – muzzled innovation.
It’s what director Ned Bennett releases in this great Why? play a co-production of Stratford East and English Touring Theatre. In it, a 17-year-old horse-lover who blinds six horses with an iron spike. Most of all it’s released in Shelley Maxwell’s thrilling new choreography and the rippling snort of performers like Ira Mandela Siobhan and Keith Gilmore in an equally fresh set and costume design by Georgia Lowe, where encrusted brilliance is stripped off.
Naked torsos drab colours and grey shorts gift a kind of steel and velvet, organic and naked threat to the production. Till near the end it’s girt by sheer white curtains. A world clinically shorn but there’s smoke-hazed clouds of unknowing too. Where there’s more out there, it’s lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun, with Giles Thomas’ ambient string quartet composition (two violins, cello, bass) and sound design, orchestrated by Robert Sword.
There’s also the altered dynamic: an originally two-star vehicle opens out into an eight-strong ensemble piece, sensibly still located around 1973. Zubin Varla’s Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist tasked reluctantly with probing Ethan Kai’s Alan Strang, is a literally brown study in halting alienation. Varla’s voice-production shudders in perpetual gear-change, he chain-smokes and his most dramatic openings-out are often with Hesther Salomon, the sympathetic magistrate played with persuasive warmth by Natalie Radmall-Quirke who tasks him with Strang in the first place.
Salomon’s empathic regard for Dysart extends to a sudden kiss transferred by her fingers to his cheek: transgressive and infinitely, literally touching. Salomon here more than actively listens to Dysart, who’s not kissed his wife in six years and yearns for a savage classic Greece of old dead gods, but knows it’s packages holidays and sun-cream. Radmall-Quirke brightens Salomon’s beam of hope on the dusty Varla.
Now you realize Dysart’s potential with her and agon mirrors Strang’s brush with Norah Lopez Holden’s warm empathetic stable-girl Jill Mason, early twenties, more experienced than Strang. There’s no sense of Mason being predatory here – I never really got that anyway. She gently comes on, never reproves Strang for disappointing her sexually – it’s a muted brief affair, only Kai’s nude in this play. It’s Mason’s tragedy she evokes desire then an eruption of Strang’s projected opposite for bringing him to the stables where it lives and snorts. Bennett suggests both Strang and perhaps Dysart are males who find the homoerotic somehow overpowering.
Dysart’s unskeining motive takes in Robert Fitch, Strang’s oppressive father Frank, furtive and found out. It’s a sympathetic study of a self-educated socialist printer who can’t fathom his son’s a-literacy any more than he brooks religion. One schism then lies with Frank’s religious split with Doreene Blackstock’s Bible-infused mother Dora, initially more sympathetic in Blackstock’s reading; but subversive of Dysart’s techniques and adamantine in her faith – just the element to refuse understanding.
Kai’s performance is superb. Whether as a study of flinch and fleer with Varla, suddenly energized with Holden, but above all interacting with six of the cast (all but Varla) in Maxwell’s re-imagining of those equine sequences, the orgasmic rides the shuddering physicality and the way Kai himself has to explode then shrink into foetal collapse.
Dysart shrinks too, explicitly telling Salomon that it’s not just Strang’s gods he’s killing but in ‘curing’ him of his power to ‘gallop’, something Dysart never did, he’s sexually altering him – not unlike the vile ‘therapy’ back in the news recently via the U.S. It’s not simple aversion or neutering of Strang’s homoerotic agency either: Shaffer’s too subtle to determine Strang’s purely gay: indeed such clear straight/gay binaries we now find don’t exist in science and Shaffer’s still ahead. The 1970s would find sexual fluidity as incomprehensible as gender fluidity. We can’t afford to.
Kai certainly gives a tour-de-feroce of a performance, whether nuzzling a horse in the shape of Siobhan’s Nugget the principal horse who twists a ballet-muscled torso straight out of the ballet world Maxwell comes from; and becomes a horse more than any leather cladding. Siobhan turns in a sovereign physicality, and Gilmore (also stable-owner Harry Dalton) complements him.
As do Blackstock, Fitch, Lopez-Holden and Radmall-Quirke all reverting frequently to horse identities with a concerted physicality that’s visceral and haunting. You see Strang’s personalising the horses as humans, literally through his eyes that blind theirs.
Bennett’s thrilling production breaks out Equus from its leather bondage. It’s one of the finest re-directions I’ve seen, and that rarity, a director handing back the text tongued with fire.