Stark yet fully rounded, the EUTC’s production of Equus, at the Bedlam to Saturday, gets right to the nub of Peter Shaefer’s script and delivers four square on the drama.
Equus tells of a teenage boy sent for psychiatric treatment after brutally blinding four horses in the stables where he worked at weekends. His psychiatrist narrates their encounters, as his own doubts are also revealed.
This is heavy stuff, bringing sex and ritual to the stage in the taboo-busting creation of a character who takes the fundamental iconography of Christianity and mis-conflates sexual arousal with worship. Brilliant if you get it right, cringe-worthy if you don’t.
The core of the EUTC production is a superb, sustained and believable performance from Charley Cotton as the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. It’s a strong mix of the naturalistic and the representational, as Dysart exposes the steps of his examination of the boy.
Crucially, while providing a strong and clear narratorial role, Cotton also ensures that the play is as much about Dysart as Alan Strang, his young patient. The clever and wily Dysart finds his personal life has become boring and passionless, his work at best irrelevant.
Cotton is aided by a second extremely talented performance from Douglas Clark as Alan Strang. While Cotton is all about the language, Clark has a wonderful physicality about him – at times holding himself as if he were a great horse god, at others, broken and capitulated.
While the play’s chronology follows Alan from the moment he first enters Dysart’s office, it also makes him recall the events which led him there. Clark’s telling of this nest of truths and half-truths is lightly done, brought out, you easily believe, through the tricks and guile of Dysart, acting as detective.
Director Emily Aboud has brought a really strong team to the project. Emeline Beroud’s set provides the feel of a stables, but is also a combative arena. A central raised area on which the action takes place is surrounded by the whole (human) cast, always on view, examined and questioned in their silence every bit as much as Alan Strang is being examined.
It’s simply lit but with a real attention to detail, ensuring that the action can move swiftly and easily between times and places as Alan remembers his encounters with different horses.
The costumes work to keep the play in its original era – it was written in 1973. The horse’s heads are beautifully simple – although pity Samuel Burkett, Peter Green, Valentine Relttien and Hannah Wallis who play the horses and spend their time on stage in Edinburgh’s coldest auditorium, stripped to the waist.
There is real passion and depth here. And Aboud has the character of Strang stripped naked long before Clark has to take his clothes off in the nude scene – which famously allowed Daniel Radcliffe to step out from under the cloak of Harry Potter when he played the role on the West End.
Indeed, Aboud judges this scene superbly well. Chloe Allen plays Jill, the girl who works at the stable and falls for Alan, with just the right level of naive charm to ensure the normality of their encounter. So that when the moment comes, their nudity is not a distraction from the scene’s narrative role.
There is less success in the conjuring of sensuality and underlying sexual tension in other areas of the production, however. Dysart’s relationship with his mentor Hesther (Callie Stylianou), who brings Alan to him, never crackles with a deeper undercurrent of unspoken desire as it might.
It must be said, though, that the scene where Alan and Jill are discovered in an adult cinema by Alan’s Dad, Frank Strang, is expertly judged. The comedy lies not in what they are doing, but in the relationship between generations – and that awkward moment when you realise your parents are people with carnal needs.
However, Liam Rees generally rather overemphasises Frank into something of a caricature. Francesca Knope brings a softer edge to Alan’s mother, Dora, which makes her all the more believable and allows for a much more complex character to emerge.
In these big cast productions it is easy to overlook the smaller roles. But Esmee Cook’s singularly upright and proper demeanour ensures that the purely functional role of the hospital Nurse is perfectly played in a frictionless performance. Jack Steel has even less to do, as stable owner Dalton, but brings the necessary mix of hostility and cynicism.
A thoroughly watcheable and well-nuanced production of a play that, through its presence on the school syllabus, can seem over exposed. Not so here.