There were times while watching Equus at the Bristol Old Vic that I felt the audience ought to quietly creep out of the auditorium and leave the actors to it, so heightened was the sexual chemistry on stage.
In this new production of the classic 1973 play by Peter Shaffer and directed here by Ned Bennett, the English Touring Theatre has reinvigorated this fictional account of the true story of a boy who blinded six horses. A psychological thriller where we know who committed the crime but not why he did it, Equus rips open our psyches and exposes human conditions from loneliness, desire, repression and mental illness.
Largely set in a psychiatric hospital, we meet psychiatrist Martin Dysart (in a mind-blowing performance by Zubin Varla) who is persuaded by a magistrate (Ruth Lass) to add to his overloaded case list with a troubled 17-year-old boy who has just been spared a prison sentence despite intentionally blinding six horses in one night. That boy is Alan Strang, who is portrayed in an astonishing performance from relative newcomer Ethan Kai.
Alan’s obsessive devotion to horses, especially Nugget, is of course the central crux of Equus. But this is really a metaphor for Shaffer to explore the human condition. The human relationships surrounding Alan are wreaked with unhappiness (his parents have a sterile marriage, Dysart has a loveless relationship with his unseen wife, Alan is unable to consummate his attraction to Jill). The handling of power is constantly being distorted - who actually has the control over anyone else? The repression of sexuality seeps out of the stage and is famously shown through the bondage-esque eroticism of riding a horse while naked and fetishising the bit in the horse’s mouth. A lot.
The simple set is continually reinvented with minimal fuss to transport us to a beach, a stable yard, a hospital bedroom and even a porno cinema. Choreographer Shelley Maxwell leads the cast through a beautifully balletic performance, that is perhaps best illustrated by the simple scene of Alan having a nightmare in his hospital bed - accompanied by strobe lights, a spinning bed and two nurses folding Alan into extraordinary shapes. It’s beautiful to watch, which feels awful given the pain it is intended to portray.
Ultimately, Equus leaves us questioning how one human can possibly understand another and what exactly it might mean to be mentally unbalanced.
Equus is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 20 April 2019, click here for more information and to book tickets. After this, it continues its tour around the UK. Click here for more information.