Equus – a horse for a course.

Alan struggles to explain. Manchester 1977

Alan struggles to explain. Manchester 1977

My second job as a young professional actor was playing Alan Strang, the boy in Equus by Peter Shaffer. Manchester. At that time it was the part every young actor wanted as the play had just been released to repertory companies, when there was a repertory system in the UK. (the subject of another blogpost to come). Many companies were doing the play, and Daniel Day Lewis was playing it in Bristol when I was doing it in Manchester. Cleverly and more recently, Daniel Radcliffe used the role as a stepping stone away from the Teenage Magician. Alan, the disturbed and insular boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike and is being examined by a psychiatrist as to what might have led him to do this, was an ideal part for me, as I found the pain and isolation of the young man and his secret repressed life very easy to access. [Make of that what you will!]

The staging of the play with its actors on metal hooves and wearing giant wire horse shaped heads was an extraordinary concept forty years prior to the more sophisticated War Horse, and that, along with its dramatic exploration of the story through therapy was extremely unusual and exciting.

Something the play achieved which the film could not, was to make for a perfect balance between the boy’s mythological wonder and the psychiatrist’s necessity to make Alan’s life more mundane and less imaginative. In the play we, the audience, experienced the splendour and power of his secret horse riding through the physical and visual poetry of the final minutes of act one, astride one of the giant ‘horses’ , whereas in the film we saw him riding like the disturbed boy he was, through a rubbish tip. In the film there was not enough polarity of experience between the boy and the psychiatrist (played by Peter Firth and Richard Burton) which for me destroyed the great moral question of how and when to civilise behaviour and yet retain some of the extraordinary passion and wonder the boy seemed to possess.

Some people attacked the play as too simplistic, as we discover that the final trigger to Alan’s act was a culmination of first discovering his reactionary father at a porn film, then being taken back to the revered stables, under the eyes of his godlike steeds, to have sex with an older lonely young woman, and being unable to have sex with her because he could not get an erection. When written baldly like that it does sound a bit unlikely. However, there is something about the underlying power of this play which belies any scepticism one might have. It is for me full with an organic and mythic truth.

This is why I am using the play for exercises in my next Intermediate Chekhov weekend here in Galway from The evening of October 3rd , then two full days over the weekend of October 4th and 5th. You need to have some experience with the Chekhov technique, and our main focus will be working with just two aspects of the work, personal atmosphere and psychological gesture and using them for short scenes on the Sunday. I chose these two aspects, and may add another, because on the bare space the characters inhabit as described in the text, they need to radiate a strong personal atmosphere which is almost for me bigger than the character, or they just disappear and become trivialised. Their personal atmosphere may be in some case how they want to appear, their armour, their persona and so they send that out loud and strong. Equus for me is like a bloody battle between the characters as they struggle to justify themselves in the wake of this grisly story, rather than why a boy does such a thing…. Anyway …

Check out the upcoming courses page for details or just email coretheatrecollege@gmail.com to register interest and find out how to pay a deposit. It is €100 for the weekend. If you need to know more about my work as teacher and director, it’s all on this blog!


1 thought on “Equus – a horse for a course.

  1. Tony Hegarty

    I can’t tell you how the play affected me when I saw The National Theatre production in the West End (circa 1975?). Arriving at the very last minute sat down …curtain up…how do you un clip the studs on a motor cycle jacket in the first seconds of a play….I managed it …..”the truth drug” effect was a wonderful moment…..and especially the final speech of the psychiatrist that reveals his personal disillusionment…….and of course the first full frontal nudity I had ever seen on the stage…you didn’t mention that Max! I bet you were wonderful.


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