Stellar acting in Shaffer classic

Sven Ruygrok as trouble teenager Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, in Johannesburg until May 26.

Stage: Equus – Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Johannesburg

A HAUNTING and harrowing drama, Equus (Latin for ‘horse’), was first staged in 1973, then spurred an Oscar-nominated, overlong and too-literal 1977 film version teaming Richard Burton and Peter Firth.

The play, centred on the true story of a teenager who blinded horses, gained even more attention when a 2007 London production starred Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe.

The new touring South African production of the play by Peter Shaffer, who went on to write the even more popular Amadeus in 1980, is in Johannesburg until May 26 after a successful Cape Town season.

It is a captivating, superbly acted piece, imaginatively directed and also very effectively lit by Fred Abrahamse. Any discerning theatregoer is sure to find rich rewards in it.

Essentially, Equus tells the tale of a puzzling 17-year-old, Alan Strang, from Rokeby, England, and his many visits to a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who tries to root out the facts to understand what led the lad to blind six horses with a metal spike.

In between these sessions, Dysart liaises with a nurse (Marc Goldberg), a magistrate friend (Cassandra-Tendai Mapanda) who asked him to take on the patient, and the boy’s parents – a dowdy, religious fanatic mother (Maggie Gericke) and a frustrated, oppressive, atheist father (Andrew Roux).

The stars are Graham Hopkins as Dysart, who could be approaching a nervous breakdown of his own, and Sven Ruygrok as Strang. Both give award-worthy performances, with young Ruygrok particularly affecting in a brave, richly nuanced performance that takes him from cagey to cocky to fearful, leaving him vulnerable and naked (sometimes literally).

The production, also featuring Monique Basson as a stable girl who befriends Alan and becomes pertinent to the plot, keeps the action in the ’70s, with costumes to match.

Sven Ruygrok in Peter Shaffer’s Equus,

However, while the setting switches between a psychiatrist’s office, Strang’s hospital bedroom and the living room, the set is minimal, all the settings conjured with a few moves of cubes that become seats or beds. They also suggest a couch in the home of Alan’s bickering, dysfunctional parents.

Most of the action unfolds on a centre-stage circle of white and black, resembling an eyeball. It is in front of an almost ghostly backdrop of six stables.

As always in a production of Equus, the attention to the depiction of the horses that Alan initially admires then blinds, is paramount, and in this production the actors who depict the animals are excellent.

Nugget, the stallion with which Alan forms a very close bond, is particularly well depicted by tall and toned Len-Barry Simons. With his midriff and back bare, he majestically towers above others on stage in a frame-structured horse mask and raised metallic footwear depicting hooves. He exudes a homoerotic energy and comes across as all-powerful, eerily enigmatic, as he poses with the grace and style of a dancer.

The play, in slowly exposing the facts and fantasies of the mysterious Alan’s horrific act, serves up much food for thought – examining reason, instinct, faith and passion (as well as lack of it), alongside the suggestion that galloping madness might be better than the slow-trot mundanity of conformity.

Haunting and complex, with effective use of sound, this Equus comes highly recommended for anyone who appreciates fine performances and stage fare that is more cerebral than commercial. Book at Computicket.

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