Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 23 February 2019

Review: Equus at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Ned Bennett’s subtle and physical production brings out ‘the sticky straw and steaming shit side of horses’, as represented in Peter Shaffer’s play, writes Rosemary Waugh.

Rosemary Waugh
Equus at Stratford East. ©The Other Richard

Equus at Stratford East. ©The Other Richard

Every year Pantone decide on a ‘colour of the year’. For 2019, the choice was ‘living coral’, a deep peach the company claim to be ‘life-affirming’, while previous selections have included Ultra Violet (last year), Honeysuckle (2011) and Chilli Pepper (2007). For those who care about such things (lifestyle, arts and fashion journalists mainly), the announcement of the CotY, which happens in December, results in a fair amount of attention. Even Jonathan Jones had a go at analysing what ‘living coral’ says about us in a time when real coral is being bleached white from pollution [basically, that we’re massively stressed and in need of fluffy home comforts and escape routes].

It’s easy to dismiss the idea of a ‘colour of the year’ as a corporate marketing trick, but much harder to pretend that colour simply doesn’t matter. Grey skies? Mood-draining. Yellow buttercups? Uplifting and happy-making. Even the names – stupid as they may seem – are crucial. Rose by any other name would not be rose, it would be blush, or magenta or damask.

Ned Bennett’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus makes a lot of use of colour. In Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design, saturated flashes soak through the white-sheeted walls of the stage and submerge the audience in temporary seas of blue, green, pink and red. These are colours without fancy shade names, they’re the paint box colours used by a child to make a picture of mummy, daddy and a four-windowed house. Perhaps that’s the point: these are the colours of a paint-by-numbers childhood, the one Alan Strang (Ethan Kai) doesn’t have – the one perhaps nobody actually had.

The outstanding aspect of this staging are the horses. Predominantly performed by Ira Mandela Siobhan and Keith Gilmore, the men capture the stature, poise and physicality of beasts brilliantly. Their muscularity alone is remarkable, the tensed definition of each individual muscle making them look like those statues of horses where the body is so defined you think the artist forgot to put the skin on. But it’s the posture they repeatedly get so right, particularly the strange over-extension of a stiff-legged prancing horse. It’s a superb use of physicality, one that could easily sustain filling out an entire dance work.

In fact, the horsiness is so present that at one point I swear I can actually smell horses, that intoxicating back-of-the-throat smell that’s like a drug to the initiated ‘horsey’ folk of the population.* Maybe it’s that smell that makes Equus instinctively make sense to some people and not to others. Shaffer’s play gets at the sticky straw and steaming shit side of horses, not the Pony Club preening that eclipses most images of the animal.

And Bennett gets that too, emphasising the parable-like qualities of the piece by having many of the scenes performed with a deliberate rigidity so that they seem like recorded episodes from a case study, like something from the scrapbook of Freud (What Little Hans Did Next, perhaps). As Alan, Kai brings a disconcerting mixture of unhinged bravado and juvenility. The idea of him as a child seems particularly pronounced here, which foregrounds the idea of him as representing a more primal, maybe even pre-linguistic (it’s mentioned that he can ‘barely read’) energy in opposition to the restrained (read: repressed), educated adult that is Martin Dysart (Zubin Varla).

Which is why, when there’s a lot of cleverness and subtlety otherwise going on here, that the lighting colours in school disco brights feel out of sync. There are also a few jump scares, which again seem redundant. The flashy brightness of the colours, the ‘we’re-going-to-get-you’ bangs, none of it’s necessary to hold the audience’s attention. The longer it goes on, the more I get distracted by thoughts of what could have been if the play wasn’t lit with red for the bloody bits, pink for the lovey bits and green for the creepy bits. Imagine it was dark, I think. Enveloped in maroon, granite and copper. Chestnut, grey and dun.

Is that an entirely subjective viewpoint? Am I a prissy arts journalist trapped in a living coral nightmare of my own making? Almost certainly – I’ve already discovered another human who not only slightly liked, but actually LOVED the lighting colours. But that’s kind of the point of Equus isn’t it? We can’t really escape – or explain – what we like and why.

*I’m a relatively well-functioning grown-up living in a city, but roughly once a month I will get an intense urge to go stick my head deep into the rough fluff of a horse’s neck and just INHALE. I then realise this is an impossibility, so I return to impersonating an adult behind a computer feeling quite sad.

Equus is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East till 23rd March, and is then on tour till 11th May. More info here and here

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

Review: Equus at Theatre Royal Stratford East Show Info


Produced by English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East

Directed by Ned Bennett

Written by Peter Shaffer

Cast includes Robert Fitch, Keith Gilmore, Ethan Kai, Syreeta Kumar, Norah Lopez Holden, Ruth Lass, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Zubin Varla.

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