17th April 19
I reviewed Peter Shaffer's 1973 play, 'Equus' long ago as a student, and so was curious to see it again recently at the Theatre on the Bay. I'd forgotten that the main action takes place in an English psychiatric hospital.
Having cross-examined countless psychiatrists as a medical lawyer since my student days, it was intriguing to see Shaffer’s portrayal of the dynamic between doctor and patient. Of course, since the play was written the ethics of psychiatry have changed, so you (hopefully) won’t be hypnotised by stealth or provided with placebo ‘truth’ drugs by your psychiatrist. That’s the position 17-year-old Alan Strang finds himself in after he blinds six horses. If this heinous crime sounds a little far-fetched, it’s not; the play was written as a fictional explanation for a true story published in a Suffolk newspaper. It’s a quite brilliant piece of theatre exploring religion, repression, guilt, young love, obsession and regret.
Although 50 years old, the play feels surprisingly contemporary, and Alan’s father Frank Strang might have been providing poignant commentary on the evils of new technology: simply swop TV for smartphones, iPad, laptops, and social media. Alan (compellingly portrayed by a fearless Sven Riygrok) initially speaks only in television advert jingles – ironic, given that watching it had been banned by his technologically-wary father. We meet a composed Graham Hopkins as Martin Dysart, the slightly jaded but well-meaning child and adolescent psychiatrist harbouring his own obsession with Ancient Greece. He’s trapped in a stolid, loveless marriage to his knitting wife, whereas there’s a plain meeting of the minds between himself and Magistrate Cassandra (played by Hesther Salamon with credible polish) as he attempts to deconstruct Alan’s psyche.
Dysart’s is not the only dysfunctional marriage. Maggie Gericke is excellent as Alan’s hand-wringing Yorkshire mother Dora Strang, the ex-teacher with liberal views but strong morals. Her odd marriage choice was the atheist, yet conversely puritanical, Frank (ably played by Andrew Roux), whose repeated jarring colloquialism, ‘if you receive my meaning’, provides an ironic echo to Alan’s own warped world-view. Oddly, Frank seems more disappointed in his son’s religious belief and disinterest in books than concerned about the appalling crime under consideration. Despite the inevitable magnetic focus on that underlying crime, Shaffer manages to interest the audience in the petty concerns and personalities of every single character on stage. Whilst the subject-matter is understandably heavy, there are many light moments, with very human portraits of Frank Strang, Dysart and Cassandra injecting spattered levity.
With religious delusions quite common in schizophrenic patients, the parallels between paganism and Christianity become increasingly apparent, as Alan’s confused religious upbringing turns Freudian. His unnatural obsession with horses, cultivated from the age of six when he was offered a ride on a beach, takes on delusional force. He begins to attribute to the species god-like powers, and as he opens up to his psychiatrist, we follow him to his local riding stables where he works as a groom. He worships his favourite horse, Nugget, through saddle-less night rides, with the creature accepting the bridle’s bit – the ‘chinkle-chankle’ - in a Christ-like gesture of humility. The religious motif culminates in Dysart cradling a swooning Alan on the hospital bed in a powerful visual re-enactment of a Renaissance pietà sculpture.
The portrayal of horses in this play is a conundrum, but the deliberate decision to avoid realism, with mask-like representations of horses’ heads and wedge-shaped high-hooves (designed by Marcel Meyer), proved extremely effective. Centaur-like (with choreography by Marc Goldberg), the horse cast encapsulate the animal with a tilt or shake of the head and a bend of the knee, simultaneously hinting at the spectre of Alan’s sexual guilt. Monique Basson is the sassy Jill Mason, who takes charge of her co-worker with no sense of danger. By complete mistake, she helps the adolescent unmask his father’s ordinariness; a man with neither power nor right to any moral high ground. Attributing omnipotence to the horses at the stables, though, Alan is unable to climax with Jill. Like Adam embarrassed by his own nakedness after the fall, he flees metaphorically, to the horses’ collective detriment. Finally realising what has provoked his patient’s criminality, Dysart, undergoing something of a professional menopause, envies Alan’s psychotic confusion: ‘at least he galloped’. For all his achievements, does Dysart’s respected life have more purpose?
This was magnificent theatre, with masterful direction from Fred Abrahamse (who also had charge of the stark lighting, complementing the simple stage set by Meyer). Yet the theatre was disappointingly empty, despite a significant price slash. I had in fact avoided The Theatre on the Bar after the woefully banal and slapstick piece, ‘The Play that Goes Wrong’, at which I sat stone-faced as the packed audience fell about laughing. Perhaps the nudity and simulated sex scene is too much for the sensibilities of Camps Bay? Or could it be that that privileged population (of which I am one) prefers its theatre as entertainment rather than challenge? Whatever the reason, they’re missing out.
29 March - 20 April 2019
Daily at 8.00pm
Cost: R120 (reduced from R240)
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