Equus – Michael Campbell and Nomadic Artists bring a soaring passion to the stage. (Sydney FF Theatre Review)

There is something delightful about a banned play being produced for the public, and being performed in front of school children. It gives one the feeling of being Winston Smith, brazenly reading The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by candlelight under the giant solitary eye of Big Brother. Equus is such a play. To my knowledge, it is still banned in schools in this country, although many school children will be going to see it at The Sydney Fringe Festival, despite the objections to the play of one Reverend Fred Nile (A member of the Senate of NSW with a dedication to the combination of the Church and Sate – clarification, HIS Church and State).  Fred Nile doesn’t seem to have kicked up a fuss this time around, however, but the thrill of the banned still hovers deliciously over the text.

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Not that a play as subversive and dark as Equus needs controversy like that to add flavor to its offerings. Forty years on Equus is still a shocking play, whether it be the overt nudity, the simulated sex, the horror of Alan Strangs crime or the longing for passion from Dysart that leaves you reeling, there is something in Equus that will have you talking with your friends deep into the night and steeling its way into your dreams. At just over two hours long, its misty halls and internal tunnels worm their way into you in the first few minutes, when you first hear of the shocking crime Alan Strang has committed. Every second after that is a breath-held wonder as Alan’s psychiatrist, Dysart slowly extracts the “why?” we are all aching to hear from Alan’s mind.  As the play builds toward Alan’s brutal recreation of that fateful night, we watched, horrified as Dysart starts to unravel at the seams, as he asks the questions Alan’s behaviors have called forth about each and every one of us.

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Peter Shaffer’s play is heady and mysterious in and of itself.  Based on a true story, and located in a time when Psychiatry and psychology were undergoing huge transformations, it is the clarion call for a passionate life over the stayed well-behaved life of the obedient.  Is fitting in more important than an intense engagement with what we experience? This is a common theme in literature and philosophy, as our political selves do battle with our self-expression. How does one fit in adequately without the massive sacrifice of the spirit. Surely the very core issue of feminism, xenophobia, homophobia, and the heart of how we relate to our fellow-man hinges on our ability to fit in?  It is when people do not want to act according to the large, unwritten rules that destabilization occurs, placing cracks in the carefully wrought facade that holds everything in place. This is Dysarts cry.  he has been well-behaved all his life, gone far in his career, maintained his marriage and made money, all for what?  the death of his passion and fire.  Is that an exchange that is worth what he paid?

“Oh the primitive world”, I say, “What instinctual truths were lost with it!” And while I sit there, baiting a poor unimaginative woman with the word, that freaky boy tries to conjure the reality. I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field!… I watch that woman knitting night after night  – a woman I haven’t kissed in six years – and he stands in the dark for an hour, sucking the sweat off his God’s hairy cheek. (pause) Then in the morning, I put away my books on the cultural shelf, close up the Kodachrome snaps of Mount Olympus, touch my reproduction statue of Dionysus for luck – and go off to hospital to treat him for insanity!  Do you see?

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And now, as a highlight of the Sydney Fringe Festival, Michael Campbell directs a modern Equus, still true to Shaffer’s vision, but modernized, dream like, and surreal. For Campbell Equus is a question of masculinity, and that which cripples our sense of self.  If Alan Strang’s passion kills his ability to relate, then Michael Campbell uses Equus to raise the questions of why.  If Dysart’s acquiescence in his crushing obedience is the unavoidable consequence of living a right life, then Michael Campbell uses Equus to ask why of that also. Working with him on this journey are the brilliant talents of Martin Portus as Dysart and the haunting Michael Brindley as Alan Strang.  Portus’ Dysart starts out smug and self-satisfied in his unremarkable life he worked so hard to create, yet through the withdrawn, internalized private passions of Alan Strang, he folds at the knees, making his cries not on a mountain top, but into the top of a glass of whiskey. Michael Brindley is a disarmingly arresting Alan Strang, both psychologically and physically perfect for the role. His Alan Strang is vulnerable and fragile, with a laser like stare that can bore a hole through steel. The two men, one at the start of his life, one getting toward the end, together make Michael Campbell’s man; both of them part-time saints and part-time monsters.

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Although the two leads are excellent in their roles, Equus is nothing without the horses and a talented movement director who can make us believe in the power of the centaur. Lia Reutens takes six men and through movement and intense metallic masks, makes six of the most powerful, beautiful horses you will see.  The horses bear the mark of God in Equus and suffer the most terrible crimes, and none of this is convincing without the graceful and precise horse movement from the six men. Dressed in their leathers, wearing their masks, the stable takes on an entirely new dimension so that we believe in Alan’s definition of the world rather than Dysarts.

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The rest of the cast, Lyn Lee, Brinley Meyer, James Moir and Jeannie Gee respectively play the various roles of humans at cause and effect in the destiny of Alan Strang. Everyone is fine in their role so that there is no interruption to the audiences inner travels as they make their way through Equus. Jessica Wells provides original music for this production of Equus, Gary Dryza the eerie sound design that infuses perfectly with the haze and fog of the set. Behind all of this is Liam O’Keef’s lighting, beaming up at the horses from their perches as they stand, motionless around the action at centre stage. This is a stunning production by Nomadic Artists, and a must see at this years Sydney Fringe Festival.

I interviewed Elliott Marsh, the producer of Equus here.

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Equus is on at The Performance Hall in the Forum Cultural Center in Leichhardt from Wednesday the 11th through to Sunday the 28th of September. You can purchase your tickets here.

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