Review: Equus at Bristol Old Vic

Jessica Hope reviews English Touring Theatre’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, on at Bristol Old Vic until 20 April

Since it was first staged in London in 1973, Peter Shaffer’s Equus has made a lasting impact on the theatre world. Even many of those who have never seen the play have heard of it, conscious of its dark exploration of a teenager’s zealous fascination with horses.

Equus ran at the National Theatre for 1,209 performances between 1973 and 1975. Yet it was almost 35 years until it was revived in the UK – this time famously featuring a 17 year-old Daniel Radcliffe taking his first big step away from the bubble of Hogwarts and onto the theatrical stage – and receiving very positive reviews in the process.

Inspired by a true story, the play follows psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart as he tries to discover what drove teenager Alan Strang to blind six horses in a Hampshire stable. As he delves into Alan’s twisted world of sexuality and religion, Martin begins to question his own mentality, his passions (or lack of), and the life choices he has made.

Director Ned Bennett is the ideal candidate to take on this revival – which is a co-production by English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East – having produced plenty of edge-of-your-seat theatre in recent years (Pomona at the Orange Tree, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon at the Dorfman, and Buggy Baby at The Yard). The production has no set and uses minimal props, although don’t be deterred by this – it will be arguably the most atmospheric piece of theatre you will witness in a long time.

Simply by using long, white curtains draped around the stage as a backdrop, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s imaginative lighting design brings the play’s dramatic atmosphere to life as it pulls you from one location to the next. Whether you’re on a sun-soaked beach, reliving Alan’s first memory of a horse, or being thrown into the dark workings of his mind, the lighting – as well as Giles Thomas’ eerily clever sound design – effectively builds tension.

Movement director Shelley Maxwell must be commended for applying her expert observations of a horse’s temperament to this production. Why use props when you can use the actors? With great skill, they master the commanding strength, repetitive muscle flickers and heavy breathing typical of horses, with Ira Mandela Siobhan being particularly impressive as Alan’s favourite horse, Nugget.

Ethan Kai is a relative newcomer to the stage, yet plays the tormented 17 year-old Alan with confidence and precision. He’s a twisted character, yet Kai brings touches of sensitivity and childlikeness to his interactions.

Zubin Varla is excellent as the cigarette-toting Dr Martin Dysart. While he is carefully able to discover details of Alan’s crime, audiences are pulled into his frustrations with his own demons, yet these are lightened with superbly timed comedic lines.

The cast as a whole – eight in total, with some doubling up as horses – are outstanding at bringing this complex story to life, especially in the final heart-thumping scenes which will have you catching your breath.

Revivals of renowned plays can often fall flat or just miss the mark of excellence. But, with an effective minimalist set and imaginative direction, this production of Equus draws you deep into this compelling, harrowing tale, making you feel as if you’re sitting among the straw of the stables, witnessing the events unfold before you.

Main image: Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart) and Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) in Equus. Credit: The Other Richard