Words: Simon Button
Since it premiered at the National Theatre in 1973, Peter Shaffer’s horse-themed play has been trotted out countless times since - most notably when Daniel Radcliffe starred in a 2007 West End revival that made ‘Harry Potter gets naked’ headlines around the world. But I doubt there’s ever been as electrifying a production as the one currently playing at Trafalgar Studios.
Directed by Ned Bennett and transferring from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, it’s not so much a revival as a radical reinvention - darkening the themes, upping the intensity and strengthening the shocks whilst mining the humanity of Shaffer’s brilliantly-written script.
Bennett’s biggest stroke of genius is to do away with puppetry or extras sporting horse’s heads and have the animals played by actors. They use sinew and muscle to convey power, with Ira Mandela Siobhan simply stunning as a stallion named Nugget. You forget you’re watching a man and believe he really is a horse as he contorts his sculpted physique and nuzzles up to Alan Strang, the 17-year-old stableboy who has developed an erotic fixation on this commanding creature.
The play’s homoerotic subtext is rendered more vivid than ever before, with Ethan Kai as Strang mounting Ira Mandela Siobhan’s back during a midnight ride and climaxing over Nugget’s skin and smell and sweat. And Kai is simply extraordinary in the role of a teenager who has blinded six horses for no apparent reason. He’s haunted but cheeky, sexy but repressed, nervous but cocky, bravely full-frontal but naked in order to convey Strang’s vulnerability rather than to titillate the audience.
It is up to Dr Martin Dysart to get at the reasons for this troubled boy’s violent outburst and Zubin Varla is superb in the role - playing the psychiatrist as a droll, seemingly unfazeable professional who begins to crumble when his sessions with his young patient force him to look at his own, very unhappy life.
The outstanding cast is served well by lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, who projects dramatic flashes of colour onto the bare white box of a stage, and composer and sound designer Giles Thomas, whose use of music and effects is ominous and unsettling.
This is an Equus that leaves you shaken and stirred. And in Ethan Kai - who has only done a couple of plays before and a few TV guest spots, including the second series of Killing Eve - it has a thrilling new talent who I suspect will go very far indeed.
Equus is at Trafalgar Studios until 7 September. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.