‘Equus’ review – Unsettling revival of Peter Shaffer’s classic charges onto the stage

Ethan Kai and Zubin Varia make a captivating duo in this elaborate and unsettling psychological thriller – ★★★★★

Ned Bennett’s lucid adaptation of Schaffer’s play certainly doesn’t horse around. Akin to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time with its vibrant lighting, smooth choreography and tight physical theatre; the part-detective drama, part-spiritual suspense is unforgiving in its examination of life’s many meta-narratives and philosophies.

Kai is the young Alan Strang with the equine obsession, a 17-year-old admitted to Dr Martin Dysart’s psychiatric hospital after blinding six of the animals in a stable. It’s far from We Need to Talk About Kevin but with horses, with Bennett’s take moving away from the sense of victimhood felt by Alan’s family and instead diving deep into the text’s rich philosophical connections.

Kai’s gritty portrayal of Strang is one of a social chameleon, mimicking the Milkybar advert and the story of Job, his psyche an amalgamation of belief systems which others have tried to steal away from him.

For a character who simply replicates ideas which surround him, Alan’s back-and-forth with Dr Dysart (Varia) is fascinating – an intense dance of ‘tricks’ between leads which nestles perfectly in Bennett and Maxwell’s seamless direction and transitions. When the tables turn, when it is the psychiatrist being examined, the end results are striking and revelatory.

After all, as much as Equus is about the wider belief systems at play in society, it also highlights secrecy and a sense of shame. In Dysart’s case, Varia’s performance as a psychiatrist trying to find meaning in himself as much as others – an intriguing paradox – is delivered with incredible delicacy, his poetic dialogue spoken with softness and vulnerability. The references to deities, although excessive and rich at times, offer up some thought-provoking moments, Dysart’s monologue about a so-called ‘God of Normal’ produces an alternative spin on a fascinating social question.

Unnervingly visionary, Equus gallops from the secretive to the honest, the purist to the explicit, and the realistic and the ethereal. A play about ideology, faith and passion, Bennett rides through Shaffer’s mighty script in a truly devastating fashion.

Equus is now playing at Trafalgar Studios until 7 September.

Production Images: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard.


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