Equus, written by Peter Shaffer and directed by Jack Smith, has been the talk of King’s for several weeks. I’ve met quite a few people who’ve been anticipating this controversial play. I’m sure its reputation will attract a fair amount of patrons, but I hope its sensational aspects don’t overshadow its quality. This play, barring a few narrative and technical hiccups, is an interesting, involving piece of theatre.
Equus revolves around Alan Strang, a teenager who recently blinded six horses. He is sent to a mental hospital, where Dr. Martin Dysart tries to understand his psyche. Through flashbacks and therapy sessions, we learn that Alan has an all-consuming obsession with horses, a combination of sexual pleasure and religious fervor. Dysart attempts to find the root of this fixation and questions the benefit of curing such a mind and returning him to “normal” society. Thematically, Equus explores the tension between reason and civility against insanity and impulse. Dysart, a stuffy, repressed intellectual, envies Alan’s total commitment to his passion, even if it is strange. Is repressed civility preferable to loose indulgence? The play also discusses nature versus nurture as the source of human behaviour. Alan’s parents are presented as possible instigators of his fractured psyche, but Alan himself seems to arrive at his obsession on his own. Who, if anyone, is to blame? This question, along with many others, are left ambiguous.
The set was neatly, cleverly arranged. The stage resembled a psychiatrist’s office, even in scenes away from the mental hospital. This choice kept the idea of mental analysis in the audience’s mind at all times. Every scene was an exploration of people’s psyches, if not explicitly, then implicitly. There was also a large stable door in the background, constantly reminding the audience of Alan’s obsession. The lighting was sparse, but effective. Spotlights were used to show the mental isolation of the characters, adrift in their own thoughts. The staging was minimal and creative. Alan was always onstage, whether he was acting in a scene or resting in front of the audience. He was always in the forefront of the characters’, and the audiences’, minds.
The two standout performances were Thomas Jestin as Alan and Justin Moir as Dysart. They worked well together, creating an interesting dynamic through contrasts and similarities. At the beginning, Jestin emitted coiled intensity, angrily pacing back and forth and muttering to himself. As the play progressed, he revealed more layers to his character, showing vulnerability, madness, joy, misery, and religious ecstasy. While Jestin occasionally overacted at some parts, he brought a great energy to the play. Moir, memorizing an impressive amount of dialogue, was restrained and controlled. He seemed to be collaring any passion or verve, which perfectly suited the character. Jestin and Moir did a good job of highlighting the passion and restraint of their respective characters. Their choices brought the opposition of reason against insanity to the forefront. The rest of the cast (Georgia Findlay, Austin Hiltz, Kathleen Hazel, Sofia Zaman, Miranda Bowron, and Kaelen MacDonald) worked well with the material. Hiltz and Findlay, while occasionally stilted, portrayed Alan’s parents with the right mix of concern and horror. Zaman played Jill Mason and captured the attraction and confusion of a woman who falls for Alan. The only major drawback for the cast were the horses. Many of the actors played horses, only wearing brown and strips of hay. It was a distracting choice that rendered certain scenes slightly ridiculous.
The biggest problem with the play was the first act. It was well-acted and staged, but it went on for well over an hour. Many scenes dragged on for too long and the pacing felt quite sluggish. It was mostly build-up to the second act. It established themes and characters that would be fleshed out later on. The cast did a good job of engaging the audience but the length of the first act hindered the overall experience.
The second act was much better, filled with great scenes and superb acting. It also contained the most controversial moment: onstage nudity. Alan and Jill go to the stables, strip naked, and attempt to have sex. While this scene is difficult to stage, the play pulled it off perfectly. Director Jack Smith, Jestin, and Zaman did a great job, creating a tender, sad, and powerful scene. The nudity played out naturally and wasn’t presented as cheap titillation. It was simply a part of a larger scene that built to some of the best theatre I’ve seen this school year.
Equus is a wonderful piece of theatre. The set, while minimal, brought the thematic elements to the forefront and the actors found real depth to their characters. The first act was slowly paced, but it built to an excellent second act. Equus is an overly long, but terrific production.