EQUUS
Salisbury Playhouse
Opened 24 March, 2000

Equus is one of those plays where familiarity has bred a faint contempt. It rapidly attained the status of modern classic, but in some ways passed out the other side, as its theme of individual approaches to worship in a modern environment was overtaken by a world which itself had no time to care about such seeming irrelevancies. The money culture of the 1980s in effect spiked Equus's guns, leading to a view of Peter Shaffer's play as terribly well written and thoughtful but almost quaint in its preoccupations.

This is sorely to underestimate the piece. The other night at Salisbury Playhouse, I found myself sitting next to a party of sixth-formers. As the house lights came up, one vocal young lad was fulminating against his fellows who had sniggered at the onstage nudity in the climactic sequence; he was outraged that such childish responses should have sullied "the most incredible piece of drama I've seen in my life!" Equus, thankfully, is still capable of such heartening revelations.

Casting a south Welshman as psychiatrist Martin Dysart will inevitably awaken comparisons with Richard Burton's performance in Sidney Lumet's film version. Here, Gareth Thomas is almost brusque with his character's inner turmoil where Burton savoured every syllable of his agonies. But Thomas has it right: Dysart, although easily the biggest role, is merely the chassis on which the story and themes are mounted; their engine is the case of Alan Strang, the disturbed teenager referred to him after blinding six horses with a hoof-pick. Danny Nutt's Alan begins with bellowing belligerence, spitting out advertising jingles with the venom of the young John Lydon; this is rapidly revealed as a defensive carapace, although Nutt never fully allows Alan's deeper uncertainty and desire to be healed to gain the upper hand over his hostile bluster at best the two elements are in uneasy counterpoise. Roger Leach (who, as one of the horses in Salisbury's first production of the play, has waited 25 years to get a speaking part in it) strikes exactly the right note as Alan's father, an old-fashioned working-class prig but nevertheless a figure to be sympathised with rather than ridiculed.

The Playhouse's new artistic director Joanna Read and designer Richard Foxton follow Shaffer's directions for a bare, semi-ritual staging. Their masterstroke is to have married this play to the remaking of the Playhouse into a space in the round. Aware as we inevitably are of the other banks of audience, we ourselves become part of the symbolism as watching the play becomes an act of witness.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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