Opera House, Buxton, Tuesday 8th November, 2011
Kerry Bradley’s set for this touring production of Peter Shaffer’s modern classic brings to mind the amphitheatres of Ancient Greece. The design of the horse masks that overlook the action (when not being worn by actors) are reminiscent of the bronze helmets of Ancient Greek warriors. When not required to appear in a scene, the actors remain onstage, like audience members at that Greek amphitheatre. This not only helps to keep the action flowing but it all adds up to remind us that this is not just a play about a disturbed young man but rather we are in the mind space of the psychiatrist trying to unravel the case, whose only recreation it would seem is to leaf through books about Ancient Greece, trapped as he is in a loveless marriage.
This threw a new light on the material for me. Dysart, the psychiatrist, narrates the action and links the scenes. The play starts and ends with him. This design concept brought to the fore that the play is really about the effect trying to understand the young man’s crime has on the shrink, rather than just being about the investigation of that crime itself.
Dysart himself becomes more neurotic as the story unfolds in a strong performance by Malcolm James. Only towards the very end did I find his worked-up state get in the way of some of his diction and some lines were lost.
The script is as involving and compelling as it always was. As horse mutilator Alan Strang, Matthew Pattimore plays a blinder. His Strang (he’s a bit strange, get it?) is a brooding, monosyllabic but tortured soul. The exchanges between patient and doctor are the strength of this production. It is pleasing to see Pattimore, last seen on tour as an impressive Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird, carrying the emotional weight of a show. It is a bold performance, even before the nudity, as he slips between Strang in the presence to Strang in recent memory and also Strang as a young boy. The play is not a whodunit, but a why-did-he-dun-it… The more we learn about this troubled character the more we feel for him, and even when Strang is being his most obstreperous, Pattimore never loses our sympathy for a second.
The transitions work very well, as characters pop in and out of the shrink’s office and in and out of anecdotes that elucidate the circumstances that led the boy to blind the horses. Aidan Downing portrays Nugget the horse with grace, hinting at the power of the beast, and there is sterling support from Steve Dineen and Anna Kirke as Alan’s ideologically conflicted parents, and from Helen Phillips as Jill Mason, with whom Alan has a brief but doomed encounter.
The play is rich in themes. The curing of damaged minds leads to de-individualisation. The way that the values of parents (in this case particularly the influence of religion on the young) can harm the development of the individual (Take a bow, Philip Larkin!)… The Ancient Greek flavour of this production made me think of the Oedipal aspects of the story. Alan blinds the horses (who are the incarnation of his Jesus-replacement, the God-horse Equus), rejecting the notion of the all-seeing deity and his mother’s value system. He is fuelled by the shame of sexual failure and doesn’t wish Equus to witness this inability to fulfil a primal urge. All this after having caught his dad in a porn cinema and feeling empathy with the man for the first time in his life. This is the anti-Oedipus, you might say.
The re-enactment of the blinding works as a catharsis (Greek theatre again) for Alan. The person most disturbed and in danger of becoming unhinged at the end is the psychiatrist. The very nature of his work has been thrown into question, along with the realisation that he has lived a life without an ounce of the passion Alan demonstrated in his twisted religion.
This is an effective production of a gripping and thought-provoking play. Michael Cabot’s direction could do with being a little tighter, a little sharper in parts, but on the whole, the power of the play comes across.