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A CurtainUp London Review

"Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created."
— Martin Dysart
Ethan Kai as Alan Strang
(Photo: The Other Richard)
English Touring Theatre has paired up with The Theatre Royal at Stratford East to bring us a thrilling production of Equus which is as brilliantly acted as it is choreographed. I saw the 1973 production of Equus at the National Theatre and remembered the horses played by people with horse heads as being ground breaking in terms of movement. In 2007 "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe took the role of the young psychiatric patient who has mysteriously blinded six horses from the stables where he works at weekends.

At Stratford East, the excitement is engendered by the future star Ethan Kai playing Alan Strang whom we will see in the BBc's Killing Eve 2. But first to talk about how remarkably good is Zubin Varla as Martin Dysart the psychiatrist who examines much about himself from his treatment of the 17 year old boy. From his very first scene Varla totally convinces and we warm to his personality. The dilemma for Dysart is in removing the psychiatric condition, "curing" Alan, he will destroy the creativity of his young patient. It is in comparison to his own life which has become dull and humdrum that he questions his role in delivering patients who find it easier post treatment to conform to the norms of society.

The first scene sees Ira Mandela Siobhan as a horse, Nugget. His body is contorted into one with shoulders and arms as straight front legs and rippling muscles as close to a human taking on the shape of a horse as realistic as I have ever seen anywhere. Rather than relying on the puppets which made War Horse such an emotional experience, or the masks and metal hooves of other Equus productions, movement director Shelley Maxwell who trained as a dancer, gives the actor/dancers playing the horses an authentic physicality.

An earnest Ruth Lass as magistrate Hester Salomon asks Dysart to take on the case of Alan Strang and his inexplicable crime. Dysart at first resists. His early meetings with Alan Strang find the boy not communicating but singing jingles from television commercials if the 1970s. Dysart's question, "Which of your parents forbade you from watching television?" seems to hit the right note with the boy. There follows a series of negotiations to get the boy to talk to Dysart.

Dysart interviews Alan Strang's parents and discovers that the father (Robert Fitch) is very disciplinarian whereas the mother (Syreeta Kumasr) is softer and indulgent but who has muddled in the boy's mind children's stories with her tales of horses and her excessive religiosity.

Eventually Alan Strang starts to talk about his first memories of an encounter with a young horseman (Ira Mandela Siobhan) on the beach who takes Alan for a ride much to his father's indignation. Ethan Kai's performance is transfixing as we enter into the mind of this vulnerable figure curled up on the hospital bed who has done the unthinkable as an animal lover.

The simple set features white billowing curtains, a hospital bed and a chair. When the horses are in their stalls we see just a hind leg stretched out from the curtains suspending disbelief.

Act Two sees the full re-enactment of Strang's relationship with the girl who got him the job at the stables. Norah Lopez Holden, a memorable Desdemona in the English Touring Theatre Othello, plays Jill Mason with great naturalness. No play about psychiatry can get by without an exploration of sex and Dysart finds that Alan turns the tables on him and his turgid marriage.

A scene in a local cinema showing porn films, with a spoiler shock, develops into Alan and Jill's first sexual encounter in the barn and the tour de force of acting skill when Ethan Kai as Alan Strang abreacts the situation which has brought him under arrest. This scene is unforgettably mind searing with an amazing sound scape. It is a shame that Peter Shaffer died in 2016 and didn't see this wonderful production from Ned Bennett.

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Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Ned Bennett
Starring: Robert Fitch, Keith Gilmore, Ethan Kai, Syreeta Kumar, Ruth Lass, Norah Lopez Holden, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Zubin Varla
Design: Georgia Lowe
Movement: Shelley Maxwell
Composer and Sound Design: Giles Thomas
Lighting Design: Jessica Hung Han Yan
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 8534 0310
Booking at Stratford East to 23rd March 2019, then
Cambridge Arts Theatre 26th to 30th March
Theatre Royal Bath 2nd to 6th April
Bristol Old Vic 16th to 20th April
The Lowry, Salford 23rd to 27th April
Northern Stage, Newcastle 30th April to 4th May
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford 7th to 11th May
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st February 2019 performance at The Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square , Stratford London E14 1BN (Tube: Stratford)
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