SOMETIMES A STORY emblazons itself on one’s memory and sensibilities and stays caught in one’s sense of self, forever. The premises of Peter Shaffer’s devastatingly unusual 1973 play Equus, was to haunt millions. This was a tale as much about conventions as it was about the fierce energy of an unbridled spirit.
It was the film that shook an era: if you hadn’t seen Equus in 1977 and been singularly transformed by its wisdom and madness, its sexiness and raw confrontation of taboo, you couldn’t be taken seriously. The film featured Richard Burton opposite a very young Peter Firth and presented very difficult and frightening ideas to a rapt audience the world over. The work is currently on stage at Montecasino, and you’re taken through its paces under the direction of Fred Abrahamse.
And it’s a strange thing. Similar to works such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, also staged at this theatre, it’s a foray into the madness of a young man. You, in the audience are sitting with the psychiatrist Dr Dysart (Graham Hopkins), and learning of a patient who has committed terrible crimes against animals. But as the piece unfolds and spurred on with Shaffer’s beautiful language, you are seduced by the passion of the boy, the patient, Alan Strang (Sven Ruygrok).
As thus, with the aid of hypnosis, the story is revealed. It’s a bizarre tale of too much love for things equine and too much religion being thrust at a young person in his formative years. Sex and values intertwine and become confused with one another, taking the work to its violent climax.
The writing is absolutely riveting and offers intense and developed insights into the value of passion. There are lines in which Dysart realises the blandness of his own life in relation to this young boy’s, infused as it is with a raw ability to gallop with wild horses.
And that is where the play teeters: The horses themselves. An elegant horse mask has been evolved to represent the idea of horses, supported with muscularity and choreography. The costume worn features a kind of bridle, but the performers, of course are but men and women and the bridle is at nipple level, rendering their chests exposed, evocative of S&M and drag culture. The big shoes, indicating hooves, play further into this metaphor.
So, what you get is a heady mix of different sexualities, pushing at the boundaries of taboo in tandem with the horse story. But what you lose here is the sense of great nobility, the raw primal energy that these horses evoke in Shaffer’s electric words. The intense passions and visions of Strang take on the mysterious potency of a primitive religion. The Equus character he worships is enormous and unforgiving, and with the men and women playing these horses in masks, the magic gets reduced. You find yourself wishing these horses had been commissioned to the Handspring Puppet Company, where they could rise and swoop with ethereal possibilities, under the guidance of performers, rather than be performed.
The work does contain some fabulously intense moments: when the stabled beasts respond in tandem to the energy in the space; in sophisticated and tight interface between Hopkins and Ruygrok; and in each very carefully crafted and well-performed cameo by Andrew Roux and Maggie Gericke in the role of Alan’s parents, full of brimstone and self-righteousness. But ultimately, you don’t get completely swept away and utterly haunted by the actuality of this work. The script is the thing that says in the interstices of your sense of adventure. The words are the things that will echo in your head as you drive home.
- Equus is written by Peter Shaffer and directed by Fred Abrahamse. It features creative input by Marcel Meyer (design), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (composition) and Marc Goldberg (choreography) and is performed by Monique Basson, Maggie Gericke, Marc Goldberg, Graham Hopkins, Cassandra-Tendai Mapanda, Andrew Roux, Sven Ruygrok and Len-Barry Simons at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until May 26.