“My kingdom for a horse!” Ned Bennett’s lame revival of Equus falls flat

 

There are always gentle titters when one discusses Peter Schaffer’s controversial 1973 play. “Is that the one with horse-fucking?” my girlfriend asked when I told her I was going to see Theatre Royal Stratford East’s latest production. “They don’t fuck exactly…” I sighed, but it’s true that the play’s central image — that of protagonist Alan Strang riding naked astride Nugget, a handsome stallion who takes his fancy — is one which pervades the theatrical landscape. When Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe appeared as Strang in David Pugh’s and Dafydd Rogers’ West End production back in 2007, screaming fans queued day and night for tickets in anticipation of the play’s extended full-frontal nude scenes.

But horse-fucking aside, there’s still plenty in Schaffer’s play for a director to sink their teeth into. Alan Strang is a deeply disturbed seventeen-year-old boy standing trial for the blinding of six horses in the stable where he worked. Martin Dysart is a child psychiatrist tasked with treating the boy, who has been deemed mentally unwell by the courts. Much like the relationship between Mozart and Salieri in Schaffer’s later play, Amadeus, the older man forms a paternal, pseudo-erotic obsession with his younger subject. And like Mozart and Salieri, the things Dysart tells us about Strang reveal more about Dysart than his patient. Indeed, the play is at its most thrilling when there’s a power struggle at work between psychiatrist/patient, man/boy, narrator/protagonist.

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Strang is traumatised simultaneously by his mother’s vivid descriptions of Bible passages and his father’s oblique disapproval. Strang conflates his religious devotion with sexual worship, centred on the figure of the horse which featured heavily throughout his childhood. Dr Dysart is haunted by dark visions of his own, leading to a rather Laingian streak of anti-psychiatry. He begins to doubt the effectiveness of his treatment, which reduces his subjects to dull, castrated shadows of their former selves. He envies Strang’s virility and freedom, which exists in sharp contrast to his own dreary domesticity.

Though Schaffer’s play is occasionally underwritten, with the odd dodgy line —  “He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening” comes to mind — it’s also filled with sexual angst and dark spectacle. It’s a shame, then, that Ned Bennett’s production makes little of those scenes. Set against the same blank white stage which is quickly becoming en vogue for every modern revival in British theatre of late, any action feels sanitised and clinical. While this works well for the asylum scenes, those primal acts of raw sexuality, rage and despair lack power.

Ethan Kai, too, fails to convey the misfit desperation of Strang, mainly due to the misfortune of being too good-looking. I struggled to believe that he has been outcast and isolated;the trauma described by his parents and Dr Dysart seems simply to have washed over Kai, who is more a grumpy teen than a manic, Romantic figure. Zubin Varla plays the tweedy, professorial Dysart competently enough, treading much the same ground  as he did when playing Bruce in last year’s Fun Home. Aptly enough, it’s the actors playing the horses who really shine. Ira Mandela Siobhan and Keith Gilmore express their sheer eroticism.. It’s a wise move to escape the tribal masks and felt hooves of previous productions, relying instead on powerful physique and BDSM-esque reins, their raw physicality transcending the flatness of the staging.

Disappointingly, the climax – pardon the pun – of Straing’s sexual turmoil is played more for laughs than any kind of trauma. True, sex and sexuality in theatre is a difficult line to tip-toe, particularly when the knee-jerk reaction to discomfort is to snigger. But key to the effectiveness of the play’s final act is the frenzied outburst of violence against the creatures Strang holds so dear. Instead of heightening tension, Bennett’s production frequently plateaus, letting any potential for conflict simply slip away. Though the blinding of the horses is a visceral symbol of sexual shame in the text, on stage it falls short of any lasting impact.