Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Review: 'Equus' by Peter Shaffer

This play has been on my radar for a long time and yet I have always been slightly hesitant about picking it up. The subject matter is both intriguing and off-putting and reading a play rather than seeing it is always a matter of contention as well. In the end, destiny chose for me and quite literally dropped a copy of Equus in my lap. This play is on my 100 Classics list for Out Classics Club.

Original Premiere Date: 1973
Publisher: Longman Literature
When a deranged boy, Alan Strang, blinds six horses with a metal spike he is sentenced to psychiatric treatment. Dr. Dysart is the man given the task of uncovering what happened the night Strang committed his crime, but in doing so will open up his own wounds. For Dysart struggles to define sanity, and justify his marriage, his career, and his life of normality; ultimately he must ask himself: is it patient or psychiatrist whose life is being laid bare? The most shocking play of its day, "Equus" uses an act of violence to explore faith, insanity and how the materialism of modern life can destroy humanity's capacity for pain and passion
When Daniel Radcliffe starred in a staging of this play back in 2007, the press descended upon the fact that Harry Potter would be naked on stage. This play is about much more than a horse and a naked disturbed young man and it is a shame that this was completely missed, although there is always the hope that the media attention will have interested other people into picking up the play as well. At the centre of the story is not Alan Strang, but rather Dr. Dysart and his profession as a psychiatrist. Because the play isn't structured chronologically, in the sense that the whole is presented as some kind of flashback, there is a sense of detective mystery to it and to his investigation into Alan's mide. We know what happened and who did it, but why? As such, the audience, and in this case the reader, is constantly questioning and wondering alongside the characters.

It's always strange, reading a play. Shakespeare didn't write for the page, for example. The folios from which we have the plays were transcribed during performances. Playwrights write for the stage and therefore at times reading plays can be confusing. The stage directions can either make sense or be incredibly confusing because you can't see the stage. Realizing halfway through a play that the stage has two exits and that everything depended on where the characters exited is a sobering experience. Shaffer's directions are rather confusing at times, since the story of the play isn't linear and very much depends on staging. However, the occasional confusion is also elemental to the story since Shaffer's characters themselves are inherently confused. The human mind is a chaotic place and in many ways the audience is exploring the mind together with Dr. Dysart.

At the heart of Equus is the question of how primal humanity is at its core, which is presented through a number of different debates.An example is how Alan's parents seem to struggle with the nurture vs. nature question. Did Alan blind the horses because of their upbringing or was there always something "wrong" with him? The play is suffused with passion, whether it's in the way that the characters speak or in Alan's self-created theology around Equus. And yet it doesn't feel as if Shaffer is judging Alan's passion. Rather, throughout the whole of Equus Dr. Dysart works towards the conclusion that passion is an essential part of humanity. We lose ourselves in it, whether it's self-created, like Alan, or created by society, like his mother's devotion to Christianity. Shaffer questions a lot of different things in this play which makes reading it very intense at times.

I give this play...

4 Universes!

At times Equus is hard to follow and its reputation can be hard to overcome but sticking with it is incredibly rewarding. Shaffer demands much from his audience, but also gives a lot in return. After reading the play, I am convinced I need to see it staged so I will be keeping my eyes open for any stagings close to me. I don't recommend it to those with sensitive sensibilities, but for those willing to look past the initial strangeness, it's a must read!

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