Equus (Ad Astra)
July 5 – 20
It isn’t often that a production has more notoriety than the work itself however this may well be the case with “Equus”. The 2007 revival of the play famously served as vehicle for Daniel Radcliff’s first on stage appearance in attempt to shed his clean-cut Harry Potter image, along with his clothes, which alone makes it a bold choice for Ad Astra’s latest production. To their credit, however, this is not a company that shies away from the challenge of a rarely-seen play.
The ambition of the complex psychosexual drama is evident when Act One opens to prominent child psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart (Richard John Murphy) desperately considering the value of grief to a horse. By his own admission, this doesn’t make a lot of sense so he soon restarts to take us back to where the story manifests with magistrate Hesther (Eleanor Ginaldi) asking him to take on the case of 17-year-old Alan Strang (Angus Thorburn), who has been convicted of blinding horses with a metal spike.
After agreement, Dysart interviews Alan and his parents. As the sessions progress, Alan responses in a series of vivid flashbacks and we learn of his preoccupation with religion inspired by his mother Dora (Michelle Carey), his father Frank’s (Peter Cattach) subjective judgement and a particular encounter with a horse on a beach. Slowly Dysart becomes increasingly fascinated with Alan’s past emotional experiences. Accordingly, experience of the multi-layered narrative is a long one and during Act One it feels that way as its exposition takes its time to lead the audience to its crescendo re-enactment of events of the night in question when Alan’s understanding of the horses as being representative of God leads to confusion between adoration and sexual attraction.
Although still harrowing, things make a little more sense in Act Two where provocation focusses more on the passion of Alan’s worship rather than attempted determination of his supressed rage, through recall of his relationship with co-worker Jill (Claire Erueti). However, there is confusion in some aspects of the show’s identity; Dysart talks of the Scottish North and wonders about visiting Australia after earlier Alan has been singing quintessentially Australian advertising jingles whenever initially questioned.
“Equus” is a talky, quite static play, which staging in the round enlivens in many ways, even if performer use of the audience space gives some audience members repeated blind spots. The most notable aspect of the staging is, however, the stylised representation of the horses courtesy of performers using skeletal frames for heads, with commitment to conveying the animals’ physicality.
Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychodrama about a disturbed teenage boy who blinds horses has courted controversy ever since its first staging. Over forty years later and it is still unsettling subject matter, however, in Ad Astra’s hands it is at least tempered by many compelling moments, thanks mostly to Thorburn’s intense portrayal of the introverted, vulnerable protagonist Alan. Murphy also effortlessly carries a lot of the show’s weight as the psychiatrist whose own personal life is far from satisfying, walking a fine line between being patient and stern in his interactions with the troubled teen. Carey also gives audiences some memorable moments as a mother burdened between vindication and guilt.
Certainly, the subject matter of “Equus” means that it is not a play for everyone. While it may leave you with a sense of discomfort, the twisted story of a boy’s love for horses is theatre at its boldest, raising questions of freedom, religion, sexuality, pain and blame, meaning that no matter how much time has passed the story remains relevant and a production well worth a look.