By BRUCE DENNILL
Equus / Directed by Fred Abrahamse / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
The tagline on the poster for this production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play – “For those who loved it – for this missed it” – acknowledges that Equus is neither a new nor a fresh piece. And Fred Abrahamse’s production (which is new) retains the details of the original story – the techniques used by a psychiatrist protagonist, for instance – that place it in its original temporal context (the play was written and first staged in 1973).
For those who have seen the piece before, once or repeatedly, there are touches that will add new interest here, including the horse costumes, which include magnificent steampunk-style headdresses and catwalk-ready hooves that add the better part of a foot to the wearer’s height. And of course, there are the risqué elements – the threads about ritual sacrifice, the hints at bestiality and the graphic nudity.
But it is Shaffer’s script that is the star of the show, exploring profound philosophical precepts in a way that, if not fully clarifying all the principles, brings emotions to the surface that most audience members can strongly identify with, even as they struggle to talk about them.
Alan Strang is a teenager with complex emotional problems borne of having to navigate the stultifying influence of his conservative parents and their hodgepodge of religious beliefs and lifestyle guidelines. He has found a bewildering but genuine happiness in his interactions with the horses at the stables where he has a part-time job. So when he is institutionalised for attacking the animals, it’s clear that everything is not quite as it seems.
Dr Martin Dysart is the well-regarded psychiatrist tasked with bringing the broken youngster out of his shell – trying to understand his bizarre actions but also putting him on the road to recovery towards something approximating “normal”. The doctor has his own issues, though – a comatose marriage and an analogous desire to experience more richness of life, particularly in his specific area of interest, ancient Greek mythology and Mediterranean history.
This set-up creates a level of intrigue – woven of memories, dreams, pagan ceremonies, devotion to animals, loneliness and confusion – that is already enthralling. Building on that, though, it is Shaffer’s ability to tap into the overwhelming yearning (for love, meaning, belonging, whatever) that develops in those who allow themselves to feel and indulge passion and the desperate frustration felt by those driven by reason who come to understand that those in the other camp are experiencing more (for better or worse) than they will ever be able to.
There are examinations of not only the nature of worship (of anything – it’s the concept that is important), but its incredible value for those who prioritise it. And there’s the development of an understanding of the brutal loss that comes with knowing that other people, however damaged, might have experienced the reward of giving themselves fully to something while you have responsibly held back and lost out. Allow yourself to engage with that aspect of the script and you’ll leave the theatre changed…
Graham Hopkins as Dysart is magnificent – authoritative but vulnerable and so well able to communicate the full meaning of the text that you suspect the play would be almost as effective should it comprise nothing more than the actor standing there reciting the script. That said, Sven Ruygrok’s performance as Strang is just as powerful, requiring the actor to provide nothing less than 100% intensity for the duration of a role that is as challenging physically as it is emotionally, which he does unstintingly.
If there is a shortfall in this production, it is in the representation of the sexual energy between Dysart and a colleague and Strang and a potential girlfriend. The script for these scenes fizzes with erotic possibilities, but the interactions are rather more restrained (public disrobing in the latter case notwithstanding). It’s a missed opportunity to make a wonderfully potent production just a hint better. Otherwise though, as the aforementioned tagline suggests, familiarity breeds no contempt when it comes to Equus. Go and see it, or go and see it again.