Visceral and raw, Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” stunned its sold out audience at the Drama Barn with a production that proved no subject is beyond the capabilities of York’s directors and performers. While it is not hard to imagine why the play is not more famous – ‘shocking’ is certainly an understatement – it captivates nonetheless.
Ben Kawalec set the scene with an amazingly powerful monologue in the role of Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist charged with discovering the cause of his newest patient’s horrific crime. Throughout the play these monologues form the backbone of the narrative and are particularly well timed in Act One when Kawalec’s character is brought to life swiftly and effortlessly, although occasionally his monologues seem rushed or simply distracting from the emotion of the play. As a mental patient obsessed with horses, Callum Sharp shone in the challenging role of Alan Strang where his character is powerfully visible even in silence. The awkward, staccato nature of Strang’s dialogue worked well with the fast-paced, witty Dysart and created natural rhythm that enhanced their intense realism. Dr. Dysart’s confidante’s (Caitlin Burrows) insistence that “the boy’s in pain, Martin” throughout the second Act was hardly needed to clarify Sharp’s portrayal.
With cleverly placed humour Mr and Mrs Strang (Gabriel Elston and Annabel Redgate) also gave the play realism, making the audience laugh in an otherwise morbid production. Additionally Mrs Strang’s impassioned speech to Dysart following her eruptive visit to Alan in hospital where she cries, “if you knew God, Doctor, you would know the devil”, proves one of the most raw and emotive moments in the play. Interestingly they and the other supporting actors were always visible at the side of the stage in a play very aware of stagecraft. This allowed for smooth scene transitions which enhanced Alan’s blurred experiences between both fantasy and reality and the past and present throughout the play. However, arguably this set design also proved distracting, particularly due to play’s wide use of the small space where sometimes the side of the stage was both backstage and Alan’s bedroom. Nevertheless, director Sam Essame exploits the Drama Barn’s limitations to its full potential in his set design, ensuring a play with its spectacular religious imagery and multiple settings designed for a larger stage did not feel too crowded.
Perhaps more startling than the full frontal nudity is the conclusion, where the play does not resolve Alan Strang’s behaviour but instead ends on the crisis faced by Dr. Dysart as he fears curing Alan by removing his sexual and religious convictions would also mean stripping him of his humanity. It is the culmination of the themes of sexual repression and religion where the Doctor’s struggle with his own passion (or lack thereof) are as much a focus in the narrative as his patient. Feeling the “sharp chain” of a horse’s bridle, Dysart implies the play’s central conflict is the repression of individuality and sexuality in society rather than simply Alan himself.
Named after Alan Strang’s fantastical God, Shaffer’s play (directed by Essame and Sam Finlay, and produced by Joe Willis) shamelessly explores human sexuality, identity and desire. While arguably the play romanticises mental illness into a passion to be “jealous” of, and some of its lofty speeches could be considered highfalutin, the brilliant cast should be praised for their performance. Through the struggles of Dr. Dysart to understand his jealousy of Alan’s passion, we too question our own subconscious. Concluding the play under a single white spotlight, Dysart asks us to question what it means to be human, and if it is Alan or us who has forgotten.