by Peter Shaffer
directed by Sarah Stephenson
Nottingham Playhouse Advanced Youth Theatre
11 – 16 August
Equus is a challenging and complex play by most people’s standards so it was a brave choice for the 15 – 19 year olds in the cast of Nottingham Playhouse’s Advanced Youth Theatre to tackle Peter Shaffer’s modern classic.
Audiences file in to an interesting pre-set in the square space of the Neville Studio, set like a courtroom with audience on three sides and the twelve cast members arranged backs-to-the-wall in a Last Supper-esque tableau, apparently in judgement. Naggingly insistent background music adds edge to the atmosphere.
This production is set around the time the play was written (1973) with some nicely evocative period flares and belted jackets. Equus depicts the shocking story of seventeen year old Alan Strang who, having blinded six horses with a spike, is referred to psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart for analysis and therapy. Dysart gradually establishes how and why Strang committed this disturbing act through therapy sessions and discussions with Strang’s devoutly religious mother and repressed father. Thus, the nature/nurture debate rears its head, together with an examination of religion, sexuality and personal discovery.
As the background to Strang’s increasingly unhealthy relationship with horses is revealed, so too Dysart’s dissatisfaction with his passionless life; this is one of the play’s key strengths, charting the shift in power in the patient/doctor relationship. Dysart’s obsession with Greek mythology is underlined by use of the ensemble as Greek chorus, always on stage and adding to the narrative with their actions. This generally works well but the horse noises are distracting at times.
Tom Martin brings contrasts to Strang: a child-like obstinacy yet a mature perception and an erotic sensuality in his scenes with Nugget, his chosen horse, played with impressive physicality by Dylan Sutcliffe. Their scenes together are tender but highly charged.
Less convincing is Jacob Seelochan as Dysart; he portrays his character’s frustration and weariness well but his often lowered head affects delivery and projection, muffling his performance.
Director Sarah Stephenson and designer Eleanor Field make great use of a relatively small set and minimal props. The wire horse heads and shoulder frames are particularly effective, as is the use of benches as, amongst others, a bed, a bus and a crucifix.
Appropriate to the ages of this young ensemble, the notorious nudity and sex scene are modified. However, this does not detract from fully committed performances from all cast members and their confidence with this challenging work is impressive. Such performances, combined with a new interpretation of this well-known classic, reveals promising young talent in the East Midlands.
Images by Ciaran Brown