Equus – Peter Shaffer 40 years on. (theatre review – Sydney Fringe Festival)
In 1973 at the National Theatre in London, Peter Shaffer’s Equus opened, ready to shock audiences for the first time. It’s first season ran for two years, winning a Drama Desk Award for outstanding foreign play, a Tony for best play, a Tony for best actress, and the New York Drama Critics circle award for best play. After it completed its London run, it went to Broadway where it ran for 1,209 performances.
Equus is shocking for many reasons, not the least of which is the true crime the play is based on, that of a young seventeen year old boy who lived just out of Suffolk, who blinded six horses with a steel spike. Without knowing anything about the real story or why the boy did what he did, Peter Shaffer creates the story of young Alan Strang who committed this terrible crime, and his psychiatrist Martin Dysart whose task it is to dissect and rehabilitate Strang.
The 1970’s were a turbulent time for psychologists. The move away from Milgram type shock experimentation (popular in the 1960’s) and the questioning of the relationship between attitude and behavior were leading psychologists in radical new directions, most notable situationism that posited external factors on development has having more of an impact on behavior than personality traits. Shaffer wrote Equus in 1973, just five years after the publication of Walter Mischel’s paper which sparked the person-situation debate. While this debate was raging, psychiatrists were dealing with thinkers like R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz and Michael Foucault who were creating momentum in the “anti-psychiatry” debate, the phrase having been coined by David Cooper in 1967. At the same time as psychology was looking to the patients environment to explain behavior, psychiatry was being accused of bullying, inventing mental illness and condemning those who were unusual to a dead pan life of “fitting in.” It was a year after Shaffer wrote Equus, 1974 that the American psychiatric association voted by a small majority to remove homosexuality as a mental illness.
It is these two radically new ideas Shaffer brings through Equus that spin the play through time, making it as controversial a play today as it was forty years ago when it was first seen. Situationism has been appropriated into mass culture to the point where people can use inebriation by drugs as a defense against accusation of crime, so Shaffer is on safer territory with today’s audiences than he was in the seventies, despite the pleas in the play of Dora and Frank Strang. We are able to sympathize with Alan’s parents, just as we can easily see how their behavior might eventuate in the horror played out by their son. What is still radical today is the astonishing Foucaultian position taken by Dysart when he questions the “right mindedness” of Alan Strang. Today, the anti-psychiatry movement focuses more on the relationship between medication and psychiatry, but our distrust of the psychiatric process is culturally alive and well. This juxtaposition is perfectly brought out in the relationship between Dysart and Hesther Salomon, the court magistrate that wants Strang “rehabilitated” so that he can become a “healthy” member of society. The court both approves and disapproves of Dysart’s profession, just as we in society do. Countless plays, books and films are dedicated to the “evil psychiatrist” as a character, and yet we still send them our Alan Strang’s to place a wall between ourselves and that which we have created.
Shaffer’s brilliant examination of this very act – that of “cleansing” the Alan Strang’s of the world, wrapped up in the homoerotic and religious subtext still manages to get under the skin of the ordinary person today. We listened in part to the anti-psychiatrists of the 1970’s but we are still terrified of what Alan Strang really represents – unfettered passion and a lust for life that lives like a taste on the mouth, a sound in the ear, and velvet to the skin. Alan Strang is alive in a way we both fear and hanker for and Dysart is our perfect mouthpiece when he screams his envy.
Yet, even more chilling, Dysart becomes our servant when he states:
“All Right! I’ll take it away! He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable. What then? Do you think feelings like his can simply be re-attached? Like Plasters? Stuck on to other objects we select? Look at him! … My desire might be to make this boy an ardent husband – a caring citizen – a worshiper of abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to make a ghost! … Let me tell you exactly what I’m going to do to him. …. With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny. Bit of a grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he’ll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt however, with much passion!… Passion, you see can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”
To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the first performance of Equus, a reading was held at The Australian Theatre for Young People on the 26th of July 2013 by Nomadic Artists. This was the first of many performances to be staged throughout the Sydney Fringe Festival along side a comprehensive education package that celebrates the anniversary of this illustrious, notorious and ultimately significant play. Kevin Jackson directed a first class cast that included Andrew McFarlane as Dysart, Wendy Strehlow as Hesther and Dora, Brandon McCelland as Alan Strang, Morgan Griffin as Jill and the nurse, James Moir as Dalton and James Townsend, Nat Jobe and Johnny Simon as the horses. The reading was a shortened version of the more than two-hour long play, with no interval, yet Jackson captures the throb at the heart of Equus with his extraordinary cast and the erotic, rhythmic dance-like movements of the three male horses. McFarlane plays an excellent modern-day Dysart, his glasses perched at the end of his handsome face, his gaze a piercing force of wonder as it beholds the prodigious Alan Strang. Brandon McCelland plays an arresting Strang, at once sexy and vibrant, innocent and beguiling. His Strang is a remarkably intelligent human devoid of almost any “real life” experience and therefore the shocking and turbulent private world he forms becomes a thing of artistic fluidity and passionate connection with his own “real.” The energy between the two male leads carries the audience through their experience. We too feel the envy of Dysart, while also seeing the fearful black hole of (un)reason Strang’s rapturous paroxysm represents.