The current vividly-evocative staging of Peter Shaffer’s acclaimed play, Equus, sees Sven Ruygrok entrancing audiences at Theatre on the Bay with his emotive portrayal of distressed teenager, Alan Strang, alongside the commanding Graham Hopkins as Dr Dysart.
First staged in 1973 at the National Theatre, Peter Shaffer himself praised the original director, John Dexter, for his inventive approach. Against that creative standard, any other staging of Equus has to meet the high benchmark of bringing Shaffer’s captivating words to stage in a manner that communicates the story with depth: It must show it off in a deeply expressive way as more than just a tale about a youth who blinds six horses and ends up in a psychiatric hospital, because the justice system does not know what to do with him. It must take that and elevate what could so easily fall flat if not properly explored to communicate Shaffer's intricate take on a boy who is ‘a modern citizen for whom society doesn’t exist’.
Equus at Theatre on the Bay, directed by Fred Abrahamse, mostly hits the mark in revealing the narrative to the audience as a play about people feeling emotionally displaced. The imagery created by Marcel Meyer’s design and Marc Goldberg’s choreography is expressive, striking, and dramatic. In this reviewer's humble opinion, the lighting design at times seems too harsh and out of sync with the other visuals, as amplified by the cast, to build on that impact, leaving one feeling desensitised at certain stages by prolonged and repetitive illuminations.
In the delivery of his monologues as narrative guide, Dr Dysart, Graham Hopkins has a hypnotic effect, mesmerising to such a degree that you may even forget to blink.
Sven Ruygrok’s performance as Dysart’s young patient is brilliant. His portrayal of Alan Strang is honest and raw. He also has good rapport with Andrew Roux and Maggie Gericke. Boht Roux and Gericke bring conviction to roles of Strang's concerned but conflicted parents.
By no fault of her own, Monique Basson, who steps into the riding boots of Jill —Alan Strang’s sexual awakening partner— sadly does not match Ruygrok in terms of stage presence or delivery. Give Basson a few years of stage-time and life experience, and the depth needed for the defining scene between Jill and Alan will possibly be hers to own without the performance coming across as too considered and overthought. But, this is more an issue of casting than it is an expression of Basson's performance; she gives her portrayal of Jill her all.
At times the impact of the play is lessened by not leaving certain images to the power of suggestion —something that Dexter in the original staging was applauded for. By no means am I suggesting that different versions of Equus should be compared, or that one should be a copy of another (that would be an unfair burden to place on any director or creative team), but Shaffer’s text is so vivid that it feels as if one is robbed of its true impact when shown exactly what to see in your minds-eye at every moment, especially when it comes to the Dysart memory-monologue flashbacks.
The exception being this production's exploration of the scene where Alan meets his first horse, his first god: Choreography, design, and performance meet to give expression to feelings as movement (as opposed to prescribed visuals of ritualistic fable) in an impressive scene with Len-Barry Simons and Ruygrok.
Personal preferences aside, and with deference to the creative team, the Pieter Toerien Productions presented Equus is captivating, with strong visual elements and brilliant performances. The cast is clearly committed to giving audiences a profound and emotive exploration of Shaffer’s masterpiece about a young teenager’s search for self-expression and identify as a non-conformist trapped in a conformist society driven by power and belief systems. As a theatre night out, this was an engrossing experience.
Equus is onstage at Theatre on the Bay until 20 April 2019, with tickets available online through Computicket. Please note that the production comes with a nudity warning and carries a 13PG age restriction.