Ian Croker's inspired design for Canberra Rep's production of Peter Shaffer's Equus, with a background reminiscent of the Colosseum, evokes the play's gladiatorial contest between reason and instinct, a conflict expressed between two male protagonists in other works by Shaffer. A revolve represents the central scene of an amphitheatre, with actors seated in a horseshoe around a square arena. A number of audience members sit on benches behind, like audience drawn to the drama of a Greek tragedy.
Magistrate Hester Saloman (a finely measured performance by Jennifer Dansby) urges psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Jerry Hearn), much against his will, to accept 17-year-old Alan Strang (Benjamin Hardy) as his patient. Based on a true incident told to Shaffer in a pub, Equus is a probing examination of the actions and motives of a teenager who blinded six horses that he assumed had seen him having sex in the stable. Shaffer examines the complex and often bewildering nature of the human psyche as Dysart struggles to release Alan from his excruciating psychological torment. In so doing, Dysart is compelled to confront the fragility of his own failings and beliefs. "Passion can be destroyed by a doctor", Dysart says. "It cannot be created". By releasing Alan from his passion, has he deprived him of his humanity?
Shaffer's play is much more than a rhetorical exercise in intellectual discourse. Though less groundbreaking than when it first burst upon the London stage in 1973, in Canberra Rep's production Equus remains an intriguing and thought provoking theatrical examination of cause and effect. Is Alan's behaviour the result of Dora Strang's fervent religious faith or Frank Strang's taciturn discipline? Is he the victim of sexual repression or his passionate adoration of Equus and the one horse, Nugget (Graham August) with whom he forms a special bond? Is it the act of sex with Jill Mason (Olivia Sparrow) that is the catalyst for this horrific crime, or is motive more deep-seated? .
The pain that tears apart Shaffer's characters is most palpable in the performances of Hearn and Hardy. Hearn's Dysart is a difficult and monumental role, treading the narrow precipice between scientific reason and the inexplicable. Hearn's performance is impressive in its clarity, truth and probing insight. In a pivotal performance, Hardy as Strang charts an emotional rollercoaster with riveting assurance. Shaffer's supporting characters play a functional role in serving the dramatic conflict between Alan and Dysart. As Alan's parents, Nikki-Lynne Hunter and Ian Croker make the most of their fleeting moments and succeed in lending the play a disturbing realism that counterbalances the stylised ritual of the horse's movements.
The first act on opening night appeared tentative and directorially restrained and failed to build the tension to the climactic moment at the close of Act One when Alan, god-like, rides astride the towering Nugget. Barnett's direction is less assured with the discourse of the first act but hits its straps in the second half, catapulting the play forwards through the nude sex scene, the ritualistic blinding of the horses and Dysart's fearful realisation of the tragic consequence of his treatment. It is not surprising then that some members of the audience felt compelled at the curtain call to give the cast a standing ovation.
Equus by Peter Shaffer. Directed by Barb Barnett. Theatre 3. Canberra Repertory Society. Until October 11.