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‘Equus’ at The Lowry, Salford review: ‘Ethan Kai puts in a career-making performance’

"A production that makes Peter Shaffer's award-winning 1975 play feel bold, fresh and vibrant again."

By Will Stroude

Words: Stephen M Hornby

The trouble with Equus, Peter Shaffer award-winning 1975 play, is that you need six horses. Six horses who are blinded by a seventeen year-old in a psychotic rage. A seventeen year old who has been having some form of sex with one of the horses. That is the main challenges of the piece, which will make or break any staging of it.

Enter Ira Mandela Siobhan, who faces the audience and exhales great plumes of smoke from his nostrils as he contorts his body in an amazing transspecies transformation into the main horse character Nugget. It is an extraordinary opening and Siobhan gives an extraordinary performance throughout, utterly convincing in his equestrian embodiment.

The play follows the relationship between Alan Strang, the horse lover and blinder, and Martin Dysart, a forensic psychologist appointed by the courts to make sense of his brutal and horrendous crimes, after much pleading from a local magistrate.

Strang is played by Ethan Kai in a career-making performance. His intimacy with Siobhan’s Nugget is so intense and raw with need that it becomes as disturbing to watch as his descent into the intense violence that he enacts. His adolescent game-playing and gradual surrender to the psychologist as a substitute father is utterly conniving and laced with its own strong sexual undertones.

There is plenty of queer subtext throughout Equus, from Strang’s early erotic experience as child on horseback being held in the saddle by a posh horseman, to his impotent response to his first girlfriend and his final naked surrender to Dysart’s exploration of his past. It is perhaps, the only reasonable criticism of Schaffer’s text that he is both oddly explicit and coded at the same time about the sexuality that the play is actually exploring.

Zubin Varla plays Dysart, the psychologist who hasn’t kissed his wife in six years and who can’t help but help admire the bestial passions that Strang has experienced when compared to his own frigidity. Varla captures the sense of infatuation with his patient and of the general male menopausal quality to the character, but some of the humour seems to fall flat in his hands.

Ned Bennett’s direction has stripped the play back to lighting, one steel trolley and a trampoline bed. This gives the whole set the feeling of being one padded cell, of one set of characters trapped in someone’s consciousness, of a liminal world half-realised in form. It works brilliantly and allows the startling text and compelling performances to take centre-stage.

Equus was written about as a ‘modern classic’ almost from its first award nomination, and with a film and constant performances, always runs the danger of feeling stale. This production makes the play feel bold, fresh and vibrant again, a welcome revivification of the central strengths of the writing in a fantastic hallucinatory production.

Rating: 4/5

On tour nationally until 11 May 2019. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.