I saw Equus twice with a pretty mixed group of fans, both regular theatre goes and at least one who'd only ever been to the theatre a couple of times. The reaction of both groups was the same - it was one helluva play.
Salisbury Playhouse chose to stage Equus as theatre in the round, an expensive decision that involved completely rearranging the seating and staging areas of the theatre. Artistically, I have to say that it was justified. The audience were incredibly close to the action and it added enormously to the atmosphere.
The stage was abstract in the extreme. In one corner was the psychiatrist's chair with a small table beside it. This was the only fixed point -- fitting, as the psychiatrist is the observer of all the action and never leaves the stage. The only other pieces of furniture were three padded benches which performed the function of psychiatrist's couch, hospital bed, sofa, etc. and could be rapidly rearranged to become seats in a cinema or stall dividers in a stable. A combination of lighting and excellent acting meant that you were never in a moment's doubt as to where a scene was taking place. This applied even when two scenes were taking place simultaneously. For instance, the boy (the psychiatrist's patient) might be re-living a scene currying horses, while the psychiatrist is still present, observing, and even asking him questions as the boy simultaneously carries on a conversation with the girl at the stables.
The timing of the actors was superb. The play had around 3.5 weeks of rehersal and it showed. Danny Nutt as the boy, Alan Strang, and Gareth Thomas as Dysart, the psychiatrist, were both brilliant - the intercutting between past and present was so natural that you never questioned it or felt it to be unrealistic. The tension between the two as they challenge one another and Dysart fights to retain his authority is staggering. There's one scene where the boy takes Dysart's cigarettes and Dysart simply holds out a hand to demand them back again. The power of that demand is impossible to describe. Alan breaks and returns the cigarettes.
I have to mention the actors playing the horses, especially Stewart C Thompson as Nugget. The costumes were abstract, the horses' heads almost skeletal, but the actors had studied real horses at a stable. Every toss of the head and movement of the legs felt right. Watching Nugget backed into his stall, you had the sense of watching a live horse even though there were only two legs. It was simply that you couldn't see the invisible back legs.
Equus is about a 17 year old boy who has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital after blinding six horses. As the play slowly unravels, you come to understand the origins of his fascination with horses and the way in which he has created his own god. We also come to understand the disillusionment of the psychiatrist who feels the emptiness and lack of passion in his own life. In spite of the boy's violent nightmares, Dysart envies him for having something that he can feel passionate about. He knows that he can cure the boy, but he also knows that something will be destroyed in the process.
The play is both mystery and revelation. The mystery is why the boy injured animals that he loved so much. As the answers slowly unwind, you become drawn into what is happening until a point in the second act where you get a sudden flood of realisation. "Oh, my God, that's why he did it!" The tension never ends though. You know that understanding a problem is only part of the way to solving it.
And finally, we come to understand Dysart's own trap. He is caught. In a sense, he too is Equus, the god/slave.
I came out of this play, both times I saw it, feeling sandbagged. So did my friends. Gareth didn't look that much better. If it's emotionally draining to watch, figure what it's like to perform!
I found Gareth's comments on the play to be fascinating. One in particular has stuck in my mind. There's a nude scene in the play (non-gratituous - the plot entirely justifies it) between Alan and a girl. As Gareth joked, "There's an attractive naked girl on stage, and I never see her." Because Dysart is focused on his patient. Whatever is happening, his attention is always on the boy.
I suppose the biggest compliment I can give to the entire cast is to say that my attention was focused on the play and not on Gareth.
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Last updated on 17th of April 2000.