|(c) London Classic Theatre|
The London Classic Theatre production of Equus is part way through its national tour; there is still time to catch it.
But has the nearly 40-year old play has escaped its age? Not every play travels through time, the hallmark of a classic.
The horrifying premise is simple: a teenage boy has blinded six horses to which he was devoted and refuses to say why he inflicted this appalling cruelty. The child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Malcolm James) has to find out why.
Optimistically - or perhaps arrogantly - both he and the referring magistrate think that the psychiatrist can fix whatever has gone wrong in young Alan Strang's head (Matthew Pattimore).
The first sign of age is that in 1973 people apparently had faith in psychiatrists, or at least Sir Peter Shaffer wrote it that way. I doubt if psychiatrists now would see themselves as quite so confident that they could fix behaviour just by unravelling motives and talking about them, if they ever did. However, in 1973 such theories were achingly fashionable so an audience would not necessarily have spotted this as a theatrical effect rather than an accurate representation of what a psychiatrist does for a living.
The second difficulty is that one of the formative moments in Alan Strang's life hinges on a chance meeting. Spoilers sweetie - you need to see it because the staging is wonderful - but it is a victim of time. An event which might plausibly have happened to Alan around 1960 could not happen to the infant Alan in 2000. If it had, the parents would be shouting about something other than class war. Our reality has shifted too much in specific aspects to accommodate the assumptions underpinning the play in 1973.
These, however, are minor quibbles which could be got round by simply setting the play in the past, which as we all know, was another country. It wouldn't take all that much; Alan Strang would wear flares and a hideous acrylic jumper, Martin Dysart needs a kipper tie and the lady magistrate should wear a skirt rather than trousers.
Everything else works as it stands because the designer Kerry Bradley has done a bang-up job of producing a flexible but monumental set which allows the meetings to happen with simple movements and careful lighting and not the slightest delay between scenes, whilst still clearly indicating where changes have happened. These open sets carry a risk that the audience will miss the signal that a location or times has changed; never once does the set, the lighting or the direction trip over itself leaving the audience behind and thinking "Eh, where are we up to now?" Moreover, the set is in units which allow it to fill various stage sizes, creating the illusion of a classical amphitheater even in a small space.
For the most difficult query I had to seek an opinion from a Yout of Today. As Philip Larkin pointed out, sexual intercourse began in 1963 so there had been barely a decade of it by 1973. A play about myths and sex had great power in those days. Plays about myths still might, but sex? Can it really still be a credible dramatic motive in an age when you can't open an email account without immediately being offered dodgy products?
Da Yout of Today informs me that it can be, and moreover it has to within this play or else Strang won't play-off properly against Dysart who spends much of the time bemoaning his own arid personal life.
Dysart is the heart of the piece. Ultimately it isn't the psychoanalysis of young Alan Strang which matters; that's only solving the headline puzzle. The driving complexity is the aging, raging Dysart, chasing himself about the stage, able to see his own difficulties but unable to do anything about them. Malcolm Jones carries the demanding role with honour, never letting it tip over in to a cartoon shrink but depicting a man standing on the edge of insanity for a living.
Equus is already on the list of the 100 plays of the 20th Century as too are Peter Shaffer's "Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Amadeus". Both of those are in historical settings in which the audience automatically colludes with creating another time and place. Equus uniquely challenges the director to keep the play current, not let it slip in to a being a period piece. This production manages that - it was only me who noticed that the audience had changed - and therefore grab the chance to see it in case we have to wait another 40 years for it to be staged competently.
Here is a surviving dubbed fragment of The White Horses (1965, aired in Britain in 1968) which the young Alan Strang was not allowed to watch. It gives a flavour of the aspirations of the time the character was formed in.