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Equus at the Mill, Dundrum (Review)

London Classic Theatre have brought Sir Peter Shaffer’s classic 1973 play to the Mill Theatre in Dundrum, and I had the pleasure of attending on Friday night. I must admit that it was my first time to see Equus, although I couldn’t help but be aware of the headline-grabbing aspects of the play.  I wonder exactly how much work Daniel Radcliffe has done to popularise the play, using a West End run as an attempt to divorce himself from his most iconic role, and the media revelling at the details of the show. While I was impressed with what London Classic Theatrebrought to the stage, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the play itself.

Easy rider...

I’m not an expert in theatre, and I’ve never represented myself as such. I’m just a person who occasionally likes to enjoy a show, and is broadly aware of the big monolithic works within the medium. Watching the play, I’ll concede to being impressed with the technical aspects of the show – not just the mechanics that the London Theatre Company used to bring the play to life, but also the nuts-and-bolts of Shaffer’s writing. He clearly has a fantastic technical ability, with time and space overlapping, and the plot skilfully revealing itself like pealing an onion, conversations within conversations and all that. But I just couldn’t get past the play itself.

There’s something about Equusthat just feels so tacky and exploitative. Based roughly on a real-life case, the play kicks off with a young kid blinding six horses. Schaffer read about the case in the paper and constructed the play as an exploration of how something like that might have happened. He didn’t do any research, but instead constructed his own account of events, playing off that incident. The problem is that it feels so cynical and calculated and headline grabbing. There are an infinite number of ways that Shaffer could have addressed the key themes in the play – none of which have that much to do with animal cruelty – without anchoring them to a real-life case.

Horse play...

It’s an interesting truism that animal cruelty is somehow more controversial than violence towards people, occupying a taboo area near the abuse of children. One gets the sense that the play wouldn’t have been nearly as controversial had his character lashed out and blinded six people. The animal cruelty element, and several other plot points, seem to exist purely to make the play seem a little “out there”, as Shaffer touches on things like sexual sadism and bestiality in the midst of a play concerned with the mingling of religious worship and sexual release.

They feel like shameless attempts to shock or to grab headlines or garner attention, rather than anything that ties into what Shaffer wants to talk about. In order to tie his themes into the brutal incident, Shaffer has to construct a lead character who worships a “horse god”who lives inside his head, thus connecting the real-life story to the stuff that Shaffer really wants to talk about. It just feels so ridiculously forced, when he could have constructed a fictional incident that would have connected much easier, but without any of the sensationalist attributes.

Ponying up some controversy...

More than that, though, Shaffer constructs a false dichotomy within the narrative itself. We’re told that he bench who convict the kid are torn between those who want to lock him away for life for what he did, and the one character who believes he can be helped. This leads to a psychiatrist who tries to help the kid, but eventually comes to feel guilty for extinguishing the spark of passion that the kid had and reducing him to “normal.” So we’re caught between two positions – the one that finds passion and vitality and energy in his wanton act of animal cruelty, and the one that wants to effectively labotomise him, numbing him to the world at large.

It feels like a staged argument, with no clear “right” side, but where allowing the kid to blind six horses seems like almost the “less wrong”side. Shaffer seems to discount the possibility that the kid’s singular spark could exist in a life where he wouldn’t go around maiming animals. Apparently this kid’s inner energy has no real use except cruelty, and the establishment has no choice but to smother it – it can’t be harnessed or redirected or focused or put to good use. Of course, if the spark isn’t any use for anything other than inflicting suffering on animals, why on earth should anybody care if it is snuffed out? There is no middle-ground in Schaffer’s play, and it just feels a tad cynical.

Not quite a pale rider...

The London Theatre Group do a solid job with the material. In fairness to Chaffer, a lot of the staging comes from the play itself, and it is – structurally – a fascinating play to watch as the ensemble stares wordlessly at our actors whenever they aren’t directly involved with the scene. Equus was apparently intended to be staged “in the round”, and it’s a bit disappointing that the theatre set up is so conventional. It might have been interesting to see the adaptation staged in a venue that could be adjusted more easily – the Peacock, for example. Still, the production design is fantastic, as is the use of the single set, that is adjusted and reconfigued upon the changing of a scene.

The performances are mostly solid, even if Matthew Pattimore struggles a bit in the role fo the troubled teenage. In contrast, Malcolm James is much stronger as the plays narrator, the psychiatrist who is given the boy’s case on top of an already-daunting workload. The ensemble handles the material well, especially those tasked with playing the roles of the horses, complete with ballet-like movement and equine grace.

Horse power...

Still, I could wholly engage with Equus, and I willingly concede that it’s my own problem. It’s inevitable that, in exploring any medium, you’ll find a highly-respected piece-of-work that just doesn’t resonate with you, or even something you actively dislike. I guess that Shaffer’s Equus is that play for me, something I could never really embrace or get excited about, feeling there was something distinctly cynical about the whole process.

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