Horseplay: Four Letter Word Theatre’s “Equus” by Hilary Binks

Posted on January 12, 2013

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My initial familiarity with Peter Shaffer’s award-winning play, Equus, was heavily influenced by trashy celebrity mags, and could be summarized by the following: #danielradcliffe #naked #horsesaresexy. Four Letter Word Theatre’s opening performance of Equus, directed by Shannon Loughnane, could not have  further dashed those inadequate expectations.

Four Letter Word Theatre's "Equus"

Four Letter Word Theatre’s “Equus”

The play centres on child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Christopher Runciman) and his latest case, 17-year-old Alan Strang (Benjamin Sheen), a boy who brutally blinded four horses in one night. The desire to know exactly what happened that night in the stables drives Dysart, and the audience, deeper into the twisted intersection between idolatry, obsession and reality.

In many ways, Shaffer’s account of Dysart’s quest to discover the truth is self-reflexive. Shaffer was inspired to write Equus after hearing of the real-life crime and imagining the psychology of the act.

Christopher Runciman as Dr Martin Dysart.

Christopher Runciman as Dr Martin Dysart. Photo by Ben Fon.

The two leads, Runciman and Sheen, both appeared in Four Letter Word’s 2012 production of The History Boys, (as the Headmaster and David Posner) and I thought at the time that their performances were outstanding, perhaps unable to be surpassed. They exceeded my expectations in Equus; both actors give performances that brutally expose the raw desires of their characters.

Ultimately, though, the leads’ strong performances simply blend into the spectacular work of the rest of the ensemble. The ensemble surrounds Dysart and Strang, flexibly morphing, for example, from a magistrate into one of Strang’s nurses or a fellow inmate in the asylum. As Alan’s parents, Frank and Dora Strang, Dylan Morgan and Hayley Roberts reflect a unique and complex couple, each with their individual motivations and secrets. In his role as the Horseman, Clancy Moore’s simple physicality and use of props evokes a rider as mythical as one of Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan. Katherine Innes embodies the cool seductiveness of magistrate Hesther Salomon brilliantly; and to Alan’s admirer Jill Mason, Alexandra Keefe adds depth beyond that of a simple love interest.

Alan (Benjamin Sheen) and Jill (Alexandra Keefe) share and intimate moment.

Alan (Benjamin Sheen) and Jill (Alexandra Keefe) share and intimate moment. Photo by Ben Fon.

Being unfamiliar with the play, I hadn’t considered how the equine presence would be represented. Movement coach Isabella Vadiveloo pulls off a spectacular interpretation, shaping the chorus members’ entwined bodies into a glutinous membrane of limbs and skin to embody the prominent sinews and rippling muscles of a horse.

To walk into the Revolt Loading Dock is to enter director Loughnane’s world of Equus. The multi-level space is dressed with planks of rough wood and dry straw covers the stage floor. Robert Smith’s phenomenal set design radiates with Dysart’s obsessive attachment to the events in the stable; the ever-present smell—and sound—of straw adds a sensory dimension to the experience. The stunning lighting and sound design (Caitlin Staples and Leech King, respectively) melds Dysart’s office, Alan’s room in the asylum and the stables into one fluid space, in which the audience can experience the piece intimately.

A bit of "equitation": Sheen and the ensemble.

A bit of “equitation”: Sheen and the ensemble. Photo by Ben Fon.

As an audience member, Equus is a submersion into a dream-like state—a space where we trail Dysart and Alan through memory and ideology into a fatal spiral of idolatry. It’s tough to communicate, without getting all ‘wanky Arts reviewer’, how much Four Letter Word’s Equus fucking blew my mind. Every aspect of the production combined to produce an astounding, captivating intensity from start to finish.

On the way home I had a conversation about gods, worship and philosophy. There are few experiences which spark that kind of intense metaphysical reflection. I was in need of a big glass of wine before bed but I would seriously, highly recommend that you go see this incredible performance.

Equus is playing at Revolt Loading Dock in Kensington from 10-12 and 16-19 January. All performances begin at 8 pm. To book tickets, or to read more about the performance and the company’s stunning six-show season, visit the Four Letter Word Theatre website

Hilary Binks is one of You’re Dripping Egg’s resident theatre reviewers. You can read more from her on Melbourne’s community theatre here

(Hilary attended Equus on it’s opening night performance, Thursday 10 January.)

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