If writing theatre reviews is sometimes thorny, it’s not the case here. It was not since Kramer’s adaptation of The Normal Heart that the Byre Theatre saw such an enthusiastic audience. A long round of applause followed what has to be considered a well performed and deeply felt interpretation of Shaffer’s two-act Equus. Taken place at the Byre Theatre on November 14th and 15th, the play was a missed opportunity for whoever did not get a ticket in time.
Equus, an adaptation directed by Alexander Gillespie, is a 1973 play mostly known for the recent role that Daniel Radcliffe played in its 2007 revival. Telling of the investigations of Dr. Martin Dysart —played by Gareth Owen— into the seventeen-year-old Alan Strang (Jared Liebmiller), the play explores the dark controversies coexisting in the depth of everybody’s soul. The main character, Alan, has just been accused of blinding six horses with a metal spike when he first meets the doctor, whose brilliant career seems to put significant pressure on his everyday life. With a strange solace in horses, Alan is the outcome of a failed marriage between a religious mother and an atheist father. Having to face a society which does not think of him as ‘normal’, Alan leads the audience —and his therapist too— back in time, telling of the events which influenced his current psyche and ultimately begs the question of what ‘normal’ is. As Shaffer himself writes: ‘The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes — all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults’.
Equus is no comedy or tragedy: it would be better described as a controversial and thrilling expression of our fears and uncertainties. This exploitative play is structured as a sort of reverse order detective story. The guilty is ready to pay for his crimes at the beginning of the piece and feeds the viewers with flashbacks. I was surprised the cast had been able to put on a clear performance with such a complex script. The result was sublime. Hats off to Liebmiller, Owen and Schwartz’s performances, whose acting was not only professional, but conveyed a major sense of empathy which often left the audience speechless. Similarly, the horses’s acting was not bizarre, but always controlled and life-like. No member of the cast showed lack of preparation.
The stage, empty besides a bunch of wooden tables in the middle and a bed on the side, did not need anything more to create the best setting possible. The music, the sound effects of the play, were minimal as well, leaving space for dialogue and silences. The lighting was well distributed, contributing to the pathos of the play (especially the red fog taking over at the end of the first act). The lack of eccentric costumes made the play feel incredibly contemporary, just as the horse masks did not steal the scene but created a well-thought balance between all the characters. Sound projection is constantly an issue in the Byre, and although I sometimes struggled to hear the lines, this is the only criticism I could possibly come up with for the show.
Equus was critically acclaimed by those in the Byre’s hallway after the show. Siddiqa Amin’s interpretation of Esther Saloman was incredibly well done, as was Cate Kelly’s ability to express Jil Mason’s seductiveness and coquetry. Gillespie’s work on the play must have been considerable, but has certainly paid off. The audience’s definition of Gillespie’s new adaptation as, I quote, ‘one of the best Mermaids’s shows’ is no exaggeration. In St Andrews, I have had the chance to see several plays, and I have rarely witnessed such a combination of talent and emotion. Equus has been a fully rewarding, pleasant hit which will be hard to emulate. Will the next play manage?
In the wait to see what next week will bring along, let’s congratulate once more!