The Jewish Chronicle

This old horse’s tale gets a new lease of life

- THEATRE JOHN NATHAN Equus

Trafalgar Studios

THIS IS the play with which Daniel Radcliffe launched his post-Harry Potter stage career. If that fact was not eyecatchin­g enough, he also took his clothes off for the role that playwright Peter Shaffer was inspired to create in 1973 after he heard about a stable boy who committed a crime against horses.

For Shaffer, this was the way in to work that evokes high-minded classical mythology, explores the hold horses have on the human imaginatio­n but also the way in which a growing mind can mould obsession into insanity.

The piece overplays its intellectu­alism. These days it is really most useful as a vehicle for a rising star, what with the need to get naked, and the depiction of a teenager’s galloping, though misdirecte­d, sex drive.

Still, director Ned Bennett has blown the dust off with an electrifyi­ng production. Ethan Kai is excellent as the 17-year-old Alan Strang, the boy whose mind world-weary, middle-aged psychiatri­st Martin Dys

art (Zubin Varla) is tasked to explore, when he is not wallowing in regrets about his own unhappy marriage.

The doctor’s detective work takes him to Strang’s home where his patient’s God-fearing mother (Doreene Blackstock) and emotionall­y remote dad (Robert Fitch) are only clues to the boy’s psychosis. Kai conveys the condition with a mixture of coiled repression and explosive rage.

But what breathes life into the play is the way in which the production’s physicalit­y conveys Shaffer’s ideas. The action takes place within a square whose walls are made of a sterile clinic’s white curtains, but whose filthy lower fringes take us to the stables in which Strang worked and committed his crime.

Using a hospital bed that doubles as a trampoline, the violence of his thoughts launch his body into mid-air contortion­s.

More impressive still is the way in which his charges are conveyed. Usually a sculpted head is used for this, or in the case of the massive hit War Horse a full-sized puppet is used to depict the mass and kinetic energy of the beast.

But under the guidance of movement director Shelly Maxwell, the animal takes centre stage using nothing other than the human body — chiefly that of actor/dancer Ira Mandela Siobhan who stiffens limbs and flexes muscles in a way that conveys the essence of the animal with which Strang is obsessed.

No mask, no puppet and no — thank goodness — panto techniques. This equine creation is no dobbin, but a shimmering, fully charged stallion ready to break into a full gallop.

Granted, not even this magic prevents the work from proceeding at no more than a trot at times.

But Bennett has provided a huge service to a horse play that until now was due for the knacker’s yard.

 ?? PHOTO: RICHARD DAVENPORT; ?? Zubin Varla, Ethan Kai, Doreene Blackstock and Robert Fitch
PHOTO: RICHARD DAVENPORT; Zubin Varla, Ethan Kai, Doreene Blackstock and Robert Fitch

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