Equus Masque TheatreEQUUS. Drama by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Bernie Jacobs. Set Simon Dutton. Costumes Santie du Toit. Sound Richard Higgs. Lighting Gary Fargher. Presented by Claremont Dramatic Society. At The Masque Theatre, until 6 May.

SHEILA CHISHOLM reviews

Pain! No two people feel pain alike. But where medication, most often, successfully treats physical pain, pain in the mind is another matter. Unraveling what causes a patient great mental anguish takes a skilled psychiatrist. Dr Martin Dysart (Richard Higgs) is English playwright Peter Shaffer’s choice to narrate Alan Strang’s (Tian Landman) painful story.

The stage setting is simple, yet there is no confusion understanding shifts in venues. In horseshoe shape, low fences mark out a centre space for action. On audience left five “horses” are stabled. On audience right sit the players. In Greek chorus fashion everyone contributes “horse” background sounds.

Equus Masque TheatreJacobs’ direction debut

In this her debut as a director, Bernie Jacobs, has shown she has as much talent in this art as she has as an actress. Although, for acceptable reasons, the famous nude scene was performed semi-clad, it lost little of the tension seen in previous productions. However, dimmer lighting would enhance the passion and unexpected climax.

Jacobs has an eye for detail. She rehearsed carefully and her cast performed with discipline. Especially good were CJ Opperman, Katjenka Opperman, Dave Waugh and Michelle Witbooi  clippity, clopping as horses. Their horse-head wire masks (borrowed  from The Baxter) brought them to life.

Santie du Toit’s costumes also showed detail. Splashes of red spiced the cast’s muted costumes. Landman’s superb red shirt highlighted that blood flowed from his heinous deed. At 15 (2 years younger than Alan), with his height, good looks, intelligent depth of understanding of Alan’s character, and excellent diction, Mark Landman is a talent to watch.

A lighting problem which cut short Higgs’s opening speech threw him and Cunningham.  Fortunately that didn’t last long and both were soon in their stride giving excellent performances – Cunningham as the caring magistrate. Dysart as a psychiatrist practicing his profession professionally.

Equus Masque TheatreClaassens’s played Dora as a mother driven by her religion. A teacher, she defied her husband by allowing Alan to watch the neighbours TV, but failed to oversee his education. With his own desires unfulfilled, Ellis, determined to prevent his son from sexual feelings. Cordon made a rather too gentle seducer. Jordi played a suitably angry, bewildered stable owner whose horses Alan had maimed.

Based on a true story Dysart, a specialist in children’s mental well-being, opens Equus with a soliloquy. At a low point in his career, he finds life dull, and he’s unsure how much help he offers children under his care. He is, what could be called depressed, when local magistrate Hester Salomon (Su Cunningham) arrives, requesting him – almost begging him, to admit Alan Strang into his hospital. Alan, otherwise an ordinary lad of 17, suddenly blinded five horses with a horseshoe spike and will be jailed if Dysart can’t find out why?

Hester believes Alan isn’t wicked. She believes he suffers from pain of an almost unfathomable depth and wants Dysart to cure him so he can live life normally. Reluctantly Dysart agrees. Alan is admitted. When Dysart and Alan meet Alan, in response to Dysart’s greeting, sings TV jingles. He’s in a space of his own. Out of touch with everyday life.  However Nurse (efficient Kim R2) reports that Alan has intense nightmares during which he repeatedly screams  “Ek, Ek, Ek.”

Slowly Dysart is able to probe Alan’s family life. He learns his mother Dora (Gaby Claassens) is conservatively religious. His printer father Frank (Graham Ellis) is a bully. They frequently quarrel. Alan’s relationship with his parents is poor.

At six, Alan met a horseman (Mokoena Ramollo) who taught him how to mount a horse from the left. Ramollo, in an excellent simulation of a horse, trotted round the stage.  Although very young, feeling the horses skin between his legs brought Alan a sense of sexual delight, which was destroyed when his father roughly pulled him off.  That’s when Alan began worshipping the god Equus (whose spirit lives in horses). And when he met Jill Mason (Keshia Codron), who introduced him to stable owner Harry Dalton (Patrick Jordi), after which he began working as a stable lad which allowed his worship of horses to grow.

In fact, although he denied it to Dalton, Alan would sneak into the stables at night, strip naked and bareback ride his favourite horse Nugget, until achieving orgasm.

As treatment continued, Dysart decided to use a placebo to finally get to what happened that fateful night. The fake drug worked, and after Alan poured out his reasons, he howled as though an evil spirit had left him. It left Dysart questioning what “normal” now meant to this passionate young lad.

Shaffer is telling a real life tragedy. However a closer look at Equus shows a battle between the influence of ancient Greek gods on Christianity in 1973. As well as how differences in family values, and disharmony can affect children. A lesson to be learnt, in a first rate production.

What: Equus
Where: The Masque Theatre, Muizenberg, Cape Town
Who:  Claremont Dramatic Society
Book: 021 788 1898, email bookings@masquetheatre.com
WS