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The play that shocked 70s Britain
Peter Shaffer is best known for his play Amadeus, which was not only a Broadway hit but also became a hugely successful movie, winning eight Academy awards. Equus was first performed in 1973, when Britain was still reverberating with the sexual and cultural revolutions that began in the 1960s. The old values that had kept community spirit from flagging during the second World War had crumbled: people were losing faith in the Church as a source of moral and spiritual guidance; with the help of television advertising amid post-war prosperity, material goods were becoming more and more the focus of desire, and the new sexual freedom was provoking passionate reactions from conservative critics.
Equus reflects the conflicts of the period in which it was written, and that makes it a challenging play to perform. The central character is a confused and introverted young man, Alan Strang, (Ben Gatehouse), who has been brought up with two opposing perspectives: the fervent religiosity of his mother and the lack of affection and constant absence of his atheist father. He is brought to see the psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by Ross Vosvotekas) after he commits a shocking act of violence on a number of horses under his care. Shaffer wrote the play in response to hearing a real-life report about a similar crime, in an attempt to try to understand why anyone would do such a thing.
The Bakehouse is a perfect setting for the sparseness of this production by local theatre ensemble, Adapt Enterprises. As specified in the original production, the horses are played by actors, and Ezra Rex, who plays both a horseman and Alan's favourite horse, is compellingly convincing in his role. The almost mythical boy/horse relationship is emphasised throughout the performance by clever use of lighting and choreography, which contrasts with the harshly lit scenes between the so-called 'normal' characters, whose stiff poses betray the tensions that they have to undergo to maintain their composure. There is also subtle use of sound and video, evoking the contrast between the spiritual and the material aspects of the play's focus.
Rick Mills and Chris Gallipo play Alan's parents, repressed and furtive as a result of their own conflicted upbringing. Even the nurse (Nicole Endacott) and the magistrate Hesther Solomon (Petra Taylor) are so caught up in the system that they cannot allow their emotions to override their professional roles. Jill, the girl who introduces Alan to the stables, is a refreshingly honest, uninhibited character. She is played robustly by Olivia Fairweather.
Ross Vosvotekas, in addition to playing Dysart, is the director and producer of this play. He admits that this is the most challenging thing he has ever had to do, and he has certainly succeeded admirably with the direction and production. It's a major task to follow in the footsteps of actors such as Antony Hopkins in this role, but the psychiatrist plays such a pivotal part in this drama that he needs to be fully convincing as a character rather than a mere commentator. In that regard, Ross's interpretation lacks conviction, but his failings are more than made up for by Ben Gatehouse's sensitive and balletic performance as the tormented teenager Alan.
Although parts of the first act sometimes lacked pace and tension, the second act of the play seemed to gather sufficient momentum so that the dramatic resolution was well controlled and left the audience thrilled and satisfied. If you haven't seen Equus before, this is a good place to start. It will intrigue and stimulate you to watch the movie, which has a very different approach but not necessarily a more effective one.
You can see another four performances this week ending with the last show on Saturday 26 November. Tickets are available from the Bakehouse Theatre website.