This year marks the 40th anniversary since the debut of controversial cult classic, "Equus". Written by Peter Schaffer and first performed at the National Theatre in London, it is now being revived for Australian audiences once more, in all its horsey, weirdy, nakedy, unnerving glory.
Directed by Kevin Jackson (who was part of the original Sydney cast in 1974), presented by Nomadic Artists and produced by Elliot Marsh, the 40th anniversary of Equus kicked off with a one night only reading of the play, which took place on the 26th July (exactly 4 decades since the London opening night in 1973) at the Australian Theatre for Young People in Sydney's Walsh Bay. The fully-staged production will feature a different cast and crew when it heads to the Sydney Fringe Festival from September 11th to 28th.
The Equus Reading at the Australian Theatre for Young People
I'd only vaguely known of Equus. I'd certainly never seen it performed on stage. I'd never watched the film version starring Richard Burton and I had heard that Daniel Radcliffe performed this on the West End a few years ago. I have also heard Equus described as not only extremely riveting theatre but also a little confronting. So basically, I knew the basics. Brilliant, I thought, signing up for a night at the AYTP, I'm in.
Equus introduces us to young Alan Strang (Brandon McClelland, soon to be seen with Toni Collette in Return to Devil's Playground) a young man so disturbed that he is accused of blinding six horses in a horrific and violent attack, and his court-appointed psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Andrew McFarlane, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, Neighbours), who is tasked with rehabilitating Alan back to "normal". What unfolds is less about how the attack occurred, but more about why it occurred. We learn that Alan has a religious and sexual fixation involving horses (I know!), and as the mystery of Alan's crime unfolds, we are witness to the increasing disillusionment Dysart feels in his professional and personal life, when his work with Alan tests his values.
Andrew McFarlane and Brandon McClelland in Equus. Produced by Elliot Marsh and directed by Kevin Jackson.
As a reading, it was an interesting way to be introduced to the play. The themes of passion (in love and in life) and the loss of ambition are still strongly represented in the reading. Each cast member was still able to portray their characters quite well, and you were so wrapped up in the storyline that the stripped-back sets heightened the drama and made you wonder how this would be staged when the season kicks off properly in September.
McClelland's Alan is played well enough in the reading (he'd have to have an air of maturity about him, with this subject matter) but it's Andrew McFarlane as Dysart that really got me in this version. His tortured psychiatrist reminds us all of the need to question the meaning of our work and existence, and to live with passion and intent. Granted, we might not agree with the passionate obsession Alan lives with but you know, that's what you're left grappling with at the end of the 60 minutes of the reading (the play in its proper form will run for around 2 hours, plus an intermission). Dysart's final speech about being blindly guided with "a piece of metal in my mouth", as he realizes he has no more control over his destiny than the horses in the stables hit me like a bitter pill.
Aside from the obvious controversial storyline, the other aspect of this production of Equus that struck me was how they cast the ensemble. James Townsend, Nat Jobe and Johnny Simon play the horse ensemble, and I LOVED how they physically transformed into the mythical, alluring and almost dangerous animals Alan is drawn to, humming and stamping their feet in the scenes they were in. I can imagine how chilling it will be in the full production.
The reading of Equus certainly left me curious about the full stage production, and if you're after eye-opening, award-winning, controversial theatre, then Equus will certainly deliver that. Over its 40-year history it has not only drawn criticism (it was removed from the HSC syllabus in 1992 and was a real thorn in the side for ole Fred Nile), but also garnered awards and nominations in everything from Best Play, Best Actor and Best Actress to Best Sound and Best Lighting Design. You are sure to have your mind blown.
*Please note the upcoming Equus - Sydney Fringe Festival 2013 production will feature a different cast & crew; see here for more details; www.equusonstage.com.au