Are you here for light entertainment? This aint for you
It's unnerving, compelling and controversial, and now, for its 40th anniversary, the award-winning play, Equus, will run for a limited season at the Forum Theatre in Leichhardt as part of the 2013 Sydney Fringe Festival. Directed by Michael Campbell, this season will be just as compelling as its premiere in London's National Theatre in 1973.
Equus has been described as "War Horse meets physical theatre/psychological thriller", but to me it was less about the horses and more about the psychological elements that drew me to this play. If it was enough for Fred Nile to lobby the NSW Government to have the play removed from the school syllabus (it's been banned from the syllabus since 1992), then it's definitely worth seeing what all the fuss is about.
Martin Portus as Martin Dysart and Michael Brindley as Alan Strang in Equus
In a nutshell, the play is about teenager Alan Strang (Michael Brindley), who has blinded six horses in a severe act of violence. He is brought to psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Martin Portus), who must rehabilitate Strang and find out why he acted out in such a way. As the story unfolds, the audience discovers that the circumstances surrounding Alan's crime are far more intriguing than the crime itself. Dysart's disillusionment in his profession reaches its crescendo during the time he spends counselling his young patient, and by the end of the play, he is completely bewildered by the lack of authenticity in his own life.
Martin Portus as Dysart plays his character as the type of man you know, or are. A typical 9-to-5er who gets up, goes to work, comes home, and possibly indulges in a hobby or two. But Dysart is fed up with the system he works in. The opening act shows that Dysart is already questioning the value of what he does in his career, and it's these same doubts that make him captivating to the audience. Portus' Dysart goes from unperturbed and in control to lost and flailing in equal measure, and in the delivery of his final lines, you see that Portus has turned Dysart into a man without the answers. I feel like he's simply accepting his lot in life, and it's a sad way to end his story. You do feel sorry for Dysart but it's why you feel sorry for him that will sit with you well after you've left the theatre.
Michael Brindley as Alan Strang, in a role made famous in 2007 by Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, also goes through a character transformation, although not to the extent of Dysart's character. Alan is introduced, I thought, as simply a hooligan, albeit a nasty one who likes to violently harm others. He answers in advertisement jingles and speaks with the tone of an impertinent child (although what teenager isn't?), and you are left wondering if this isn't just another case of the worst bratty teen anyone will ever know, without any proper parental guidance. But Alan has a disturbing sexual and religious fascination for horses, and to Brindley's credit, he brought this to life very well. Maybe a little too well. I'm still reeling from it slightly.
James Moir and Jeannie Gee play Alan's concerned parents Frank and Dora Strang, and I found myself sympathising with them as they try to understand what made their son do what he did. When Frank runs into Alan in an unexpected place and when Dora appeals to Dysart for his understanding, you really feel for their plight.
Credit must also be given to Brinley Meyer, who plays Alan's love interest Jill. Not only was she able to make brushing a horse an eye-opening experience for Alan (you'll see!), she, along with Brindley, were able to completely hold their composure when the theatre's fire alarm went off in a very crucial, very naked, portion of the play. Amid the audience's confusion and wisecracks (I heard a couple of people a few rows in front of me joke, "Equus is not pleased" and "Ha ha, must be the Censorship Alarm". Okay, that last one was me!), Meyer and Brindley held it together, and once the fire department deemed the venue fire-free, they continued with the scene – sans clothing. The show must go on, and no banning or fire alarm hazard can keep this play down!
Michael Brindley as Alan and Brinley Meyer as Jill in Equus
The sets and horse costumes by Tobhiya Fellar were pretty amazing – the horse masks/heads in particular really highlighted the unnatural fixation Alan had with these animals. The music by composer Jessica Wells also gave me the heebie-jeebies. Was it meant to? Because it did. I may never drive past Randwick Racecourse without that music playing in my mind ever again.
Overall, if you want theatre that will evoke equal parts fear, intrigue and disillusionment, then you're onto a good thing with Equus. It hasn't lasted 40 years for nothing, and it's just as profound now and it was in 1973.