Classic theatre, brilliantly performed

Equus by Peter Shaffer, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until SaturdayCatastrophic parenthood, adolescent sexuality, and perverted religion lie at the core of the grisly deed around which Peter Shaffer's 1973 play is based.

Ivan Howlett

Equus by Peter Shaffer, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday

Catastrophic parenthood, adolescent sexuality, and perverted religion lie at the core of the grisly deed around which Peter Shaffer's 1973 play is based. What needs solving is why a seventeen-year-old stable boy blinded six horses with a spike where he was working. The original crime on which this was based was, apparently, committed in Suffolk.

Simon Callow is the investigating psychiatrist delving into the young man's psyche and past history, balancing his considerable professional skills against his own mental disintegration.

This calls for a tour de force stage partnership between a young actor and a big part player, with lots to say, insights to have, tirades to deliver and crumbling admissions to make. With Alfie Allen as the former and Simon Callow as Martin Dysart the psychiatrist, it all works sublimely well.

Director Thea Sharrock give us a mistily mysterious, and thrilling spectacle with steel-headed horses and shocking climaxes on a set designed by John Napier, the designer of the original 1973 production. That production, with Alec McCowen and Peter Firth, I was fortunate enough to see and the detailed memory of it stays with me now, as this revival will do, too. This is the production that started life last year with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe. Their successors for the National Tour must make it very different.

Most Read

What has to be uncovered is Alan Strang's secret. What gradually emerges from the boy's rage and consuming hatred is an enveloping ritualistic emotional involvement he's developed with the horses. It's a worship experience in which Jesus is replaced by the horse god, Equus.

This is what the psychiatrist least wants to hear. While he, 'pallid and provincial' takes package tours round the sites of the ancient gods, which are his escapist passion, he realises that Alan is walking the real walk. However macabre the outcome, the boy has been there, in the world of real gods.

There's a good balance of performances. Linda Thorson is the magistrate and hospital chairman who unwittingly and elegantly turns the screw on Dysart by bringing the boy along for a 'cure'. Colin Hurley and Helen Anderson are the troubled parents and Laura O' Toole, the seductive stable hand.

Most memorable is Simon Callow's masterly reading of Dysart. We're always aware of what the character is thinking, what he's hiding from, and we hover between pity, concern and scorn for him. Brilliant.

Ivan Howlett

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter