September 01, 2000




by Peter Shaffer

State Theatre South Australia

Optima Playhouse

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Peter Shaffer wrote Equus several years after a friend told him about a crime committed by a young man. The friend  knew none of the particulars, only that a stable had been invaded and horses had been mutilated. Shaffer’s informant  died some months after and the playwright was unable to find out anything further. The image stayed in his mind, though, and he wrote an entire play around this hearsay event.

Equus is an investigation of an horrific action and the motives which might lie behind it. It is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. A seventeen year old boy, Alan Strang  has blinded six horses with a spike, and is brought before a magistrate who refers the case to a child psychiatrist named Martin Dysart. The play is framed by these two people, the magistrate tempering justice with mercy, the doctor forced to confront the very assumptions of his therapeutic practice.

In this State Theatre South Australia revival of a play with a big reputation and a history of bombastic performance, director Marion Potts has wisely chosen precision and understatement. The Playhouse mainstage makes its own demands, of course, and designer Justin Kurzel rises to the task with a scrim cyclorama with large-scale equine diagrams looming over the performances. Behind this appear skull-like masked figures, an occasional chanting chorus, phantoms and projections of Alan’s horse dreams and nightmares. And then, foregrounding the action, is a large revolve with several couches indicating, among other things, Dysart’s clinic. Here the central dialogues with Alan, with Hesther the magistrate and with the boy’s parents all take place.

Marion Potts has cast particularly well. In his debut professional performance Damon Gameau is impressive as Alan Strang. After a somewhat hyped up first scene he settles into the task giving a subtle and convincing account of a boy  disappearing into a private world of sexual and spiritual idolatry. In two crucial scenes Gameau is especially memorable, the first when he describes Equus, the other when he recounts the illicit return to the stable with the girl Jill and his compulsion to close the eyes of an all-seeing god.

As Alan’s father, Bob Baines, with cloth cap and northern accent, draws on stock traits to skilfully define a man caught between rationalism and repression while Vanessa Downing gives the role of the obsessionally religious mother a range and subtlety sometimes short-circuited in Shaffer’s writing. Her speech, the lament of all bewildered parents asked to account for the anti-social behaviour of their children, is  powerfully delivered. Kate Roberts has a suitably formal choric presence  as Hesther and Lucy Slattery is both lively and vulnerable as Jill.

Mark Hodge canters believably as  Nugget, especially in Justin Kurzel’s artfully imagined  metal framed horse mask.

In Equus much depends on the performance of Dysart and in this production Martin Jacobs is excellent. In a role which has been famously over-acted he is a model of restraint. He narrates events with clarity, effortlessly driving our curiosity, while at the same time delivering lengthy soliloquies without loss of intensity. His crisis is on a parallel with Alan’s but Jacobs is at pains not to  compete in the same key. The scene, near the end of the play,  where he gathers  up the naked Alan like a new born child is powerfully realised.

This production is a strong success for State. Marion Potts has found the right register for a play I thought might have become dated twenty seven years on. Instead Equus vigorously reminds us that its questions about the nature of socialisation and the atavistic dimensions of the human imagination are not only still worth an outing, they have become a matter of some urgency.

The Adelaide Review, No.204, September, 2000, p.34.

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