Point of View - Sneha Nair reviews Equus

Not Just Another College Play

Jester’s ‘Equus’ directed by Daniel D’Souza and written by Peter Schaffer first opened at Ithaka, the St. Xavier’s literature festival. I chose to avoid it there because I was unfortunate enough to attend (and shamelessly snooze through) a production of Kenneth Robbins’ ‘The Audition’ and William Golding’s ‘Lord of The Flies’. A design idea here or a character there managed to be raise a tiny blip of interest; unfortunately,it wasn’t enough to make me feel that the other two (‘Equus’ and a staging of John Osbourne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’) would really be unmissable. However, I changed my mind when I heard ‘Equus’ was to be staged at Prithvi Theatre. I have to admit though it was mainly out of curiosity to see how a college production would fare on a professional stage. And to a very small extent, it was also the rather interesting plot.

Written in 1973, ‘Equus’ delves into the concept of worship through 17 year old Alan Strang’s fascination with horses. When Alan blinds six horses simultaneously he is admitted to receive psychiatric care under Dr. Martin Dysart. ’Equus’ develops through Alan’s analysis by Dysart who is going through a period of self-doubt himself. The story contrasts Alan’s consuming reverence of horses to Martin’s own lacklustre life .Schaffer uses Dysart to raise a rhetoric: Would it be unfair to rid the boy of what he truly loves and believes in for something that is flaccid and ‘normal’.

Equus began with a prolonged blackout. It may have been just a few seconds over the usual but it felt more like minutes of people stumbling off big objects and/or banging into heavy things in the dark. I tried keeping an open mind but that becomes difficult when there is a major ruckus on stage during blackouts. It didn’t help that this particular one was a college play. A few smirks here and there in the audience and I knew that the play was already being judged, and it hadn’t even begun yet!

However, when the lights did fade in everything looked just as it did before the blackout. (So what was that commotion about?) Instead, Alan Strang (played by the director) is centre stage with a candle in hand. A spot falls on Martin Dysart (Eamonn Ennis), the psychiatrist under whose care Alan is admitted. As Martin talks about Alan, the latter walks towards a ‘horse’ - an actor wearing wooden sandals and a wireframe horse’s head. The horse’s oiled body and the wireframe glimmered in the light making for a rather beautiful scene – it looked almost divine. Even the most sceptical of the audience at this point was drawn in.

The play moved smoothly from here on. I found out later that the horse’s design was used in the West End production in which Daniel Radcliffe played Alan. It didn’t matter to me because the production had used the design well - it single-handedly manages to make the first scene one of the most memorable ones in the play. Equus also had an ingenious set design. Mainly played out centre stage, the play moved from Dysart’s office to the Strang residence to the stable to a picture house by simply turning a bench or two around. Upstage was occupied by the entire cast that was seated on chairs through the length of the play. Although this looked rather nice, but I am not sure what purpose it served.

Alan as devised by Peter Schaffer is like a case study that Dysart delves into. Alan never shapes into a real person because all his onstage time is spend trying to explain his love for horses disregarding any likes or dislikes he may have that would make him human. Thus he exists not as a boy but a freak who loves horses. Daniel uses this to create a moody and defensive Alan. Daniel’s scenes with Eamonn make for some of the most engaging in the play as he tries to browbeat Eamonn’s cool and composed Dysart with a juvenile aggressiveness. Sadly, he manages to establish no real connection with the horses; his love for them seemed more like a way to aggravate his parents than any true passion. Seeing how the play is about Alan’s consuming reverence of horses, this feels like a letdown in an otherwise impressive performance.

Alan’s father, Frank (Nakul Jayadevan) starts out strongly as the antagonizing parent. However, he was at his weakest during his monologues. While telling Dysart about the time when he caught his son chanting in front of a poster of a horse, Nakul severely needed to enunciate, as his words kept running into each other. Rebecca Spurgeon appears schoolmarm-y due to her costume but plays the mother Dora Strang as a rather saccharine sweet person. She gives a believable performance that she could have pulled off had it not been for the rather abrupt change in character when she has an outburst in front of Dysart.

Right from the beginning, Eamonn plays his part out with a cool confidence that draws in the audience and keeps them engaged throughout. He seems completely imperturbable even when Alan tries to faze him with personal questions. Eamonn’s rather serene approach as Dysart manages to make him convincing as a psychiatrist. It is when he is talking about himself to his aide, Harold x (Vikrant Dhote) that his character falls flat. When he talks about his failing marriage, it might as well have been another patient’s life that he is dissecting. It also seems strange for such a composed psychiatrist to suddenly start questioning his sanity with no real breakthrough on his part. While his lines may have expressed doubts, his body language seemed otherwise. In fact I can hardly remember the first signs of his breakdown (in his first monologue) – it might as well have been edited out! In his scenes with Alan, he manages to show who the boss is and still appear friendly. It is a pity then that Eamonn doesn’t manage to create a steady performance as his character single-handedly could have managed to pull up the first half of the play.

The first half of Equus seems to wander about paying more attention to design and characters than to understand what the play is really about. Another severe disappointment was the sound. Every sound cue was announced a few seconds before with a loud boom proving to be a distraction in the build-up to every major scene. When Alan was describing his first time on a horse, the boom was followed by an ear-piercing track that made it hard to follow what Alan was saying. The sound got better as the play progressed and as I recall, the second half was almost entirely devoid of any major disturbances from the control booth.

Along with an improvement in the sound it also seemed like the cast had had a collective eye-opener on what the play was really about in the second half. Eamonn’s body language finally matched up with his lines and Rebecca discarded her saccharine obeisance for a sterner one as the audience was further drawn into Alan’s story. In Vikrant’s first appearance as Harold (Schaffer uses a female confidante, Heather) he seemed completely muddled and helpless to a point of hysteria. In the second half, however, he was a lot less flustered and his scenes with Eamonn were a lot more engaging..

I have to say that once the play was over, I felt guilty about judging Equus even before seeing it. The sound may have played killjoy and been too loud at points but it seemed more like goofups due to inexperience than any design flaw. The actors were confident and despite the benches falling twice the play progressed smoothly. The backstage seemed a lot more organized than those at Ithaka where it wouldn’t be unusual to see a person in black occasionally pop out of nowhere to pick up misplaced props. A little more work on the characters and some more experience with Prithvi’s control booth would have helped the play. The audience may have snickered once or twice and completely missed out on the dark humour of the play but I guess when it left the theatre, it wasn’t treating Equus as just another college play.

- Sneha Nair