Passion can be destroyed. It can’t be created – Equus Review

You may be most familiar with the play Equus from all the press the London production received in 2007 when it cast Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame as the troubled Alan Strang. The press, of course, highlighted the controversy around then seventeen year old Radcliffe appearing fully naked on stage. This is, ultimately, the only thing we really knew about the play going into Hart House Theatre last night for Toronto’s production.

As it turns out, the full frontal nudity is the least of the controversial subject matter. After hearing of a bizarre crime involving a seventeen year old that blinded six horses in a small town near London in 1973, Peter Shaffer tried to come to terms with the volatile story by writing a fictional account of what might have caused the incident. Equus is something of a detective story revolving around a child psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart (Peter Higginson), and his attempt to understand the pathological religious/sexual fascination Alan Strang (Jesse Nerenberg) has with horses and what might have led him to commit the horrible acts that occurred.

Strang’s confusion surrounding sexuality transforms into a theology that depicts horses as the supreme godhead “Equus”, who is forever watching him and his actions. Through a series of therapy sessions with Dr. Dysart, it is revealed that Strang is erotically fixated on one particular horse and often takes him out of the stable for midnight rides. The sessions eventually allow Strang to confess to his sexual encounter with a female stable worker and how it eventually led to him blinding the horses in an attempt to rid himself from the judgmental gaze of Equus.

The religious and sexual tones are incredibly strong, bordering on eroticism that at times is extremely intense. With such controversial subject matter, it’s imperative to have a cast who can properly portray the characters with the same intensity.

Nerenberg is incredible as Strang, an exhausting role that fluctuates between different states of passion, energy, anger and vulnerability. Whether he’s transforming back to his wide eyed six year old self or struggling with the perplexity of a disturbed seventeen year old boy, Nerenberg gives it his all right until the very end. And we will, as a rule, praise anyone who can comfortably take the stage in front of a room full of people, strip down to their bare bones and still maintain their impeccable focus and posture while at their most vulnerable. The same can be said for Sonia Lindner, the female stable worker Jill Mason, who also bares it all in the climactic stable scene near the end of the play.

Higginson’s Dr. Dysart is the constant through the play, acting as narrator and detective. His struggle between helping and admiring the boy was heartfelt; he fervently fought himself on his actions, wondering whether it really was beneficial to the boy to strip him of his sexual and religious commitment to the horses. Higginson’s portrayal of the doctor carries the same deep despair as the character, leaving you to struggle with the same questions.

Our only concern with this production was the set design – an avant garde display of chain linked swings in which the actors would sit and sometimes even swing on. There were a few pivotal scenes in which this set up worked flawlessly (any scene that involved the horses, in particular), but for the most part, we found the swings themselves to be rather distracting.

The steel-tubed horses heads, which seemed to be mounted on a hockey or baseball mask, were, however, quite well done and the shirtless men donning them moved with such convincing grace that you could very easily believe that they were the beautiful creatures they were portraying.

While we cannot speak to the original production or the text in which it was based on, the adaptation seemed true to it’s organic form, from the way the supporting actors were constantly on stage gazing at the scene before them to how the five horses were constantly looming in the background watching, to the strange humming noises that could be heard in the background (which personally, we don’t understand, but from reading about other productions, this seems to be a constant and important part).

Equus is a tragic and disturbing story and a very strange play. But it’s a masterpiece in its own right and one of those productions that you have to see to fully understand all the hype and controversy.

This is the last weekend for Equus, so get your tickets before it’s too late. Adults $25.00, Seniors $15.00, Students $15.00, call 416.978.8849 or visit www.uofttix.ca.

Images from Hart House Website

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