By Vikki Doig
A mere 40 years after it was written, Equus still packs a powerful punch. Originally penned in 1973, Peter Shaffer‘s play follows the case of Alan Strang, a 17 year-old boy who is taken into a mental health institution to be treated after his pathological religious fascination with horses causes him to commit an act of unspeakable violence. Shaffer was inspired to write the play after hearing a story about a boy blinding six horses, as a means of trying to make such an act comprehensible.
The format of the play is a kind of medical whodunit, with the audience acting as witnesses to the unfolding story and development of trust between the two main characters (which, my partner pointed out, was akin to breaking-in a horse). Equus is Mockingbird Theatre‘s current production, and upon entering director Chris Baldock’s eerie world, which is somewhere between a stable and a temple, I was immediately struck by the wonderful overall design, the image of the horseheads hanging on the wall like trophies and the strong, almost tribal, presence of the horse-chorus.
We meet Dr. Martin Dysart, portrayed by a wonderfully well-cast Jeremy Kewley, who expresses his frustration at his profession and questions his own purpose. After a bit of a shaky start to the show (I found myself willing him to slow down his dialogue) his commitment to the role was absolute. Scott Middleton portrayed a beautifully vulnerable and fragile Alan Strang – menacing at first, but more human as the play went on – and the growing relationship between these two characters was a real strength of the show.
Other characters joined and left the action seamlessly, creating a very immediate space in which the motivations of the young boy, his relationship with his parents (played exceptionally well and, at times, comically, by Soren Jensen and Amanda McKay) and his eventual violent contact with the horses could be played out and reflected upon. The horse chorus, all-seeing and all-knowing, mirrored Alan’s emotion in their every movement and maintained strength and focus from the minute the audience entered the space (it was a nice touch to bring them out last at the curtain call!). Particular mention should go to Maggie Chrétien, whose portrayal of the sassy Jill Mason was, although only having a small amount of stage time, one of the strongest performances of the night.
Chris Baldock has created a production faithful to Shaffer’s original script and clearly has great passion for the words and concepts explored in the text. However, having seen an extremely powerful contemporised interpretation of the play in the UK a few years back, I personally felt detached from this version which seemed to historicise the key themes of reason versus passion and rehabilitation versus medication rather than present them as significant and culturally relevant questions which still resonate with contemporary audiences. For this reason and for me, I felt that the production didn’t quite have the power and impact it could have and this was compounded by the questionable English accents from some of the cast.
Despite this, I certainly enjoyed the show and was left with a poignant comment from Dysart running through my head: “Passion can only be destroyed by doctors. It cannot be created”, for working with children in education and the arts always makes this play and its conflict between (seemingly) necessary medication and a natural capacity for passion and emotion profoundly affecting. Because once that passion is gone, can we ever really get it back?
VENUE: Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, cnr Glenlyon & Sydney Rds, Brunswick
DATES: 3rd – 17th Aug
TIME: Tue 6th – Sat 10th 8pm, Wed 14th – Sat 17th 8pm
TICKETS: $30 Full/ $25 Con or Groups 10+/ $20 Tue 6th