Look, NOTBAd feels it has to get this out of the way right from the off: yes, there was nudity; no, Daniel Radcliffe wasn’t in it. And to be honest, if either criterion is necessary to persuade someone to see Peter Shaffer’s award-winning Equus, then they’d be better off saving their money and staying at home to watch the Harry Potter DVD box-set with their pants on their head.
So, anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, at the London Classic Theatre’s production of Equus at The Maltings last night, directed by Michael Cabot
“Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”
This is the dilemma ultimately faced by Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist called upon to treat Alan Strang, a seventeen-year-old stable lad who committed the atrocity of blinding six horses with a metal spike. As Dysart gets to the bottom of the boy’s demons, his own are sharply brought into focus, and he finds himself questioning the worth of a life spent destroying passions only to replace them with colourless normality.
Unlike Richard Burton’s angry and frustrated Dysart in the 1977 film, Malcolm James gives a quietly anguished performance, so you feel the nuances of self-realisation and his dismayed shock at discovering his jealousy of Alan. Alan’s life is one of worship and passion, something entirely absent from Dysart’s. You feel that Dysart’s grief, when the breakthrough with Alan finally comes, is just as much for himself as for Alan.
Matthew Pattimore’s turn as the troubled teenager, while excellent, is certainly influenced by the Peter Firth performance from the film but Pattimore gives his Strang a compelling intensity which on occasion is so hungry, so vulpine, it sends shivers down the spine. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of how civilisation is at best a flimsy cloak thrown over our animal condition, and coming so soon after the riots, an apt one.
In trying to explore the ‘whys’ of Alan’s behaviour, Dysart obviously has to confront the parents. Frank — an outwardly opinionated yet inwardly cowed man — is often in conflict with the mother, Dora — a religious woman who dotes on her son. Both these characters are well-drawn, particularly Steve Dineen as Frank. We can find sympathy for his broken bewilderment when facing up to the actions of his son. Anna Kirke’s Dora is less easy to sympathise with, however, for as she says herself with a chilling lack of self-awareness or acceptance of responsibility:
“I only know that he was my little Alan — and then the devil came.”
The staging of the play serves to crank up the intensity of the script, and designer Kerry Bradley really delivers something special. The actors work within an abstract form of a Grecian theatre set round with the six heads of the blinded horses, as if the animals, god-like, are judging the men below. The horses themselves coming to life is neatly done and mesmerizing. Caps doffed several times over to the actors involved.
All the actors are on stage for the duration of the play. This could have been distracting as they alternate between being passive observers and active participants, but transitions are performed with such economy of movement that they have a certain elegance all to themselves.
Ultimately, this is a triumph of talent, imagination and creativity. Michael Cabot may have had to wait over ten years to direct Equus, but NOTBAd is sure he would agree with us in saying it was more than worth it. It’s always risky taking on such a high profile play, but this is one that has certainly paid off in spades.
We cannot urge you go to see this production enough. To have something of this calibre on our doorstep is a privilege and an opportunity to be seized. You’ll come away with the realisation that, at some point in life, everyone needs to gallop.
Equus, London Classic Theatre, at The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 16th September, 7.30pm. For the full tour visit: www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk