Equus By Unifaun Theatre- Dare you defy your own gods?

Lately I had the opportunity to go and see the representations of Equus at St. James Cavalier, by a theatre company I have never heard before called Unifaun Theater. It was fantastic for several reasons! I had to "strongly encourage" my date to come along, she is young and not much into these sort of shows but even thou it is not her usual cup of tea (excuse my pun) I could see in her eyes that she has enjoyed every minute of it.

Equus is not easy (I don’t even know how to pronounce it right:)). It is a kind of psychological detective story, a play which does an unusual thing. It asks why? Most plays tell us how. Equus is a psychological inquiry into a crime, a journey into someone's mind. It is a kind of highbrow suspense story, a psychic and mythic thriller, but also an essay in character and motive. It is the documentation of a crime.

The story has been based on a flimsily documented but apparently true incident of a young stable hand has attacked six horses in their stable. He systematically put their eyes out. It seems motiveless. He loved horses. He almost worshiped them, yet one night, one by one, in a disgusting, purposeless scene of violence he blinded them. Why? The boy was sick. Of course, he was sick, but why?

Written by Peter Shaffer in the mid-Seventies, the script flirts with sex, violence, nudity and blasphemy. For some playgoers, this would be challenge enough, but Equus demands intellectual effort too: Alan’s case raises complex religious and psychological questions, which Shaffer explores thoroughly but never answers. Not the sort of thing audiences, brought up on a diet of bad farces and ineptly staged musicals, are well equipped to deal with.

The typical 17 year old boy, Alan Strang, is brought in front of horrified court on a charge for it. One of the magistrates is so shocked that she seeks the help of a troubled child psychiatrist Martin Dysart to unravel the mystery of what made the boy commit such a shocking crime, and to attempt some kind of cure. Through interviews with the boy's parents and the lad himself, Dysart starts to slot the pieces of the jigsaw into place, and the climax of the play sees a reenactment of the crime in the stables where the boy worked. The details and characters, though, are totally fictitious.

The disturbed boy is placed in an institution under the care of a psychiatrist. The boy has perpetrated a crime that is not only senseless but also bizarre. The pattern of the crime runs not just contrary to nature but contains elements of grotesque fantasy. Why blind horses? A madman might kill them; wound them in some crazed passion, but to carefully if frenziedly blind six horses suggest a certain method in the madness.

The young criminal is obviously alienated. When he first meets the psychiatrist he refuses to answer any questions. His only response is to gabble-sing advertising jingles with a mocking despair. His mind is closed up by the secret of his tragedy. The psychiatrist decides to unclamp it, to exorcise the ghost.

This is the story of the play. The psychiatrist painfully has to unravel the boy's background. He not only has to win his confidence, he also has to sustain his interest. First what was his family like? What were the events leading up to this obscene violence? Slowly the doctor investigates the facts and the circumstances, and pieces together the anatomy of an outrage. He does not have to judge. He is merely seeking the truth in the hope of freeing the boy from a demon.

The play Mr. Shaffer has created from all this is richly rewarding on a number of levels. It is by no means a clinical documentary, though it does have elements of this about it. Yet its nub is to be found in the doctor's relationship with the boy, and his growing realization that the boy has a fantasy love for horses. For it is a love, he actually finds in horses the spirit that Mr. Shaffer calls Equus, a deification of the horse as a life force, and the boy has entered realms of passion and, in a sense, reality, that his own humdrum existence has never known. He has an unkissed wife, an antiquarian interest in Greek relics and a whole tally of little, medium boredoms. He lives, as he recognizes, to a small if safe scale.

He comes to realize the uniqueness of the boy. "That boy," he says, "has known a passion more intense than any I felt all my life." He does not excuse, of course, the horrific results of that passion, but he is extremely impressed by the Dionysiac strength of its existence. He can patch up the boy's tortured mind and psyche, and send it out on the street. But what will be lost in spiritual energy? "Passion can be destroyed by a doctor, it cannot be created."

The staging catches just the right element of court drama, mystery thriller and philosophical exposition. The direction holds all the elements of the play together with consummate skill, and I was also impressed by the mimetic conception of the horses devised by Carmel Bezzina and Charles Bonello. It is not easy to present men playing horses on stage without provoking giggles-here the horses live up to their reputed godhead.

The maturity of theatrical technique is humbling. Spectacular effects are achieved with a minimum of fuss. The only stage furniture consists of four grey wooden boxes that change position and function as scene succeeds scene, serving as chairs, tables, beds and cinema seats. The elegant disposition of these boxes (the actors move them as they play their parts) is one of the subtlest pieces of stagecraft this reviewer has ever witnessed on a round type stage. The lighting, too, is of exquisite subtlety.

But these are minor pleasures. It is in the quality of its performances, each the product of an intimate, fraught collaboration between actor and director that this Equus stands head and shoulders above any other English play staged which I had the opportunity to watch.
As a director, Marcelle Teuma, greatest strength may well be the wonderful ensemble performances she elicits from her actors. Equus is no exception. Even the three silent young men who play horses(Jovan Pisani, Clayton Camilleri and Jan Zammit) move with ease and confidence; no dumb skittles here. Among the supporting role, Jean Pierre Agius and Valerie Blow are competent and sympathetic and the horseman on the beach is a ironic delight, while Colin Willis is likeable and convincing as the head of the family Strang. Pia Zammit as the magistrate has to work hard to make her character shine within the heroic penumbra of Alan Paris’s Dysart; in the hands of a less accomplished actress, it might have disappeared completely, but Pia Zammit makes it live.

Jo Caruana’s character – Jill the stablehand – is central to the action. The young actress is equal to the role, though the vivacity with which she interprets it makes you wonder what a livewire like her could possibly see in a loser like Alan Strang. She was excellent in the ‘nude’ (not really) scene, unselfconscious and focused on the script.

Lilian Pace is Alan’s mother, a character that could easily be interpreted as two-dimensional – narrow-minded, conventional, all constipated gentility and religious guilt. Lilian breaks through this caricature to show us the conflicted, loving, troubled soul beneath. Her performance adds considerable depth and dramatic tension to the play.

Alan Strang is not very bright but dazzlingly imaginative, suspicious of others yet yearning for affection, hugging his secret sexuality and faith to himself as he makes his solitary way through life is a character that makes great physical and psychological demands on the actor, who must convincingly portray a boy who has recently blinded six horses and is now living with the act. It is a role that requires an old head on young shoulders. Sean Buhagiar, who plays Alan, is a remarkable find: a product of the Mikelang Borg Drama Centre, he has evidently worked his own way into the character, growing into the role and saving his best for the whole performance. If there are many more like him among his generation, there’s hope for us yet.

Sean’s character provides the high drama of Equus; Dysart provides the interpretation. Yet it is the latter who dominates the play. It is a part Alan Paris might have been born for. His role is mature and measured, yet the effect is colossal. His style is dramatic in the old-fashioned way, almost declamatory at times, yet utterly believable, and he possesses the intellectual depth necessary to locate, unfold and project the multiple layers of emotion and meaning that inhabit the psychiatrist’s complex, tortured soul. No other maltese actor could play Dysart so well, and Paris gives the performance of his life.

None of this was lost on. There were restless moments during the first half, in which Shaffer deploys his characters like pieces on a chessboard, but the second half with its scalp-crawling revelations and serial climaxes had people on the edges of their seats. Leaving the theatre after the curtain call, they were subdued, almost shell-shocked. If, as we are often told, the psychological object of tragedy is catharsis, then Equus must be considered a grand success.

Yes, there were a few folk whose expectations of ‘entertainment’ were confounded, a few inane giggles at lines meant to elicit at most a wry, ironic smile – and yes, there was one prize ass who thought himself and his money grubbing too important to switch off his mobile phone. There are always a few. But everybody else got it. This is a very fine and enthralling play. It holds you by the root of drama, and it adds immeasurably to the fresh hopes we have for Maltese theater’s future. Thank you for a very entertaining evening. A job exceedingly well done.

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