Ned Bennet’s Equus cracks onto the Northern stage boards in Newcastle, with unrelenting intensity. This production manifests as a dark, delicious drama, bringing the 1970’s vision of obsession and passion bang up to date, with tight, intelligent sure handed direction. Equus, the tale of a disturbed young man who commits the terrible act of blinding six horses in a violent frenzy, and the psychiatrist who attempts to treat him, was actually based on a real event.
A very strong cast and sharp creative direction, takes the audience along at a pace which never drags, despite the fact that the play is well over two hours long. It is totally absorbing, and the exploration of passion versus moderation, and violence versus intellect is endlessly twisted and examined by Alan Strang’s psychiatrist, Martin Dysart.
The play follows the attempts of the mental health system to deal with this inexplicable act in a therapeutic rather than punitive way. By trying to understand the motives behind this abhorrent behaviour, the primitive, unreasonable passion of the obsessive is laid bare. This eventually leads the mild mannered child psychiatrist to start to question his own profession, and even his own mild mannered life, in the face of such raw uncompromising anger and desire for ecstasy.
The pared down set gives a chance for the dialogue to shine, and it is clearly an ensemble piece which always gives strength to the storytelling. Moves are carefully choreographed, for example with effective depiction of the horses by two physically impressive actors/dancers Ira Mandela Siobhan and Keith Gilmore. The lighting is excellent and there are even moments of verbal and physical humour, for example with the portrayal of the quirky shoppers who visit the shop where Alan works.
Ethan Kai is perfect as the brooding and disturbed teenager, Alan Strang. With his parents representing religious fanaticism and repressed sexuality respectively, he confuses religious and sexual ecstasy in his tortured mind. In an environment where things are not explained, sometimes terrible assumptions are made. We never really feel sorry for him, but we begin to understand him and the unfortunate process which has led to this brutal act.
Zublin Varla is very good as the psychiatrist, and he carries the weight of the text. He never overdoes it though and we go with him on his journey of self awareness, almost without noticing it. Norah Lopez Holden is fresh and real as Jill, the girl that likes Alan. She represents normality and the liberal accepting values that have been so badly lacking in Alan’s life. She takes him with her back to the stables but he rejects her sexual advances, feeling disloyal to his mental creation of Equus who has inspired a kind of godlike worship in the boy. In his guilty torment he takes his rage out on the innocent animals.
Equus at Northern Stage, treads the fine line of providing enough explanation to comprehend, but not enough to fully understand. There are some answers, but there are many more questions. What is the most valuable way to live your life? Can we ever reconcile the reason and passion which exist simultaneously within the human condition?
I thoroughly enjoyed this production. In a world where we now know much more about mental health, and acts of brutality are visibly commonplace through the media, Equus still has the power to make you think. This is a joint production between English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford and is shows at Northern Stage until Saturday 4th May.