A Raw, yet Intense Manipulation for the love of the Stage.
by Louw Mulder
During the last 12 odd years, I have written ample reviews about entertaining theatre shows that effortlessly tell the story, requiring no effort from the patron to understand the subject matter. But this is certainly not the case with Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which I saw this weekend at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre. This play is higher grade, and I was as excited as one would be when experiencing something you never have before.
Equus admittedly turned out to be the best non-musical stage production I have ever experienced. During this tumultuous journey of two acts, I was offended, confused AF, relieved, I felt compassion, anger, even aroused to some degree, which in fact, for lack of a more appropriate term, is a mind-fuck happening right in front of your eyes. I know this description may raise some eyebrows, but not if you were there, realising the powerful grip a production like this can have on your love for Theatre-Magic.
Equus is a psychological thriller, written in 1973. It once more made theatrical headlines in 2007 when it was brought back to the stage in the West End, with Daniel Radcliff, as the young lead. Even though I went into the theatre blind, and totally unaware of the story, nor the depth of the script, I was anxious to see it. For a South African production to go all out, you knew it had to be good, with the full nudity being a huge hype around this play, amongst many other things.
I make no secret about the fact that I am a theatre enthusiast and not an educated theatre expert at all. So during the first act, the degree of the English text, combined with the pace of the story being told, caught up with me as an Afrikaans speaking person. The story, dialogue and actual acting out of the various subjects, were in its own right very overwhelming, so much so that in my attempt to follow the plot, some disconcerting inferences were made, like hints of bestiality, even blasphemy, which is a personal no-go for me. These inferences of mine proved to be wrong.
Being open minded, my friend and I took some time during the interval to quickly read up on Equus. Since English is my second language, I knew there was room for error in my initial understanding of the text. This overview of what the essence of Equus is, shed some light on the play itself, making it much easier for me to enjoy and thrill with the rest of the theatre during act two.
For me, what makes this production by Pieter Toerien, as directed by Fred Abrahamse, the success it deserves to be, is the spot-on casting of its stars. I already mentioned the full-on nudity scenes Equus contains. Having seen several types of nudity acts on stage before, nothing compared to the ones I had experienced during Equus. With the psychological thrills and the very intense nature of the various subjects, I was completely astonished, by the power of theatre again, taking me captive to put me right there where the story cuts to the bone.
Sven Ruygrok plays the role of 17-year old Alan Strang, clearly challenged by certain psychological issues. The climax of the story, so to speak, unfolds during act two, when Strang, totally nude, is seduced by Jill, also completely undressed, which culminated into an on-stage simulated sex scene. In my humble opinion, Ruygrok here reintroduced himself this time around, as an artist, driven by the passion, dedication and commitment of a true stage professional.
I am fully aware that my awe of Ruygrok’s performance may seem exaggerated, but allow me to elaborate. For me, even the thought of being completely naked in front of a full theatre during an opening performance, is something daunting, audacious and typically not within an actor’s comfort zone on stage. The thing I noticed, which was clearly evident and extremely powerful for me, was that Ruygrok was completely in-character. Ruygrok fully surrendered himself to his role, being confronted by all the psychological elements. I experienced his portrayal of a spellbinding emotional breakdown and full-on loss of control, while being totally naked, as the true art form it is supposed to be. I sat there cold, without words, biting on a finger, trying to process the scenes in front of me.
I want to even further and say that Ruygrok demonstrated in true class, what it really means to portray a character no matter the intensity thereof – in this case referring especially to a scene in total nudity, forcing an overwhelming noise of a full theatre’s complete silence. His nudity was just another costume in the story of his character, in pursuit of delivering the perfect conclusion of the production’s riddle. I was captured by his performance in such a way, I had forgotten he was even naked…
It would however be unfair for me to refrain from mentioning the performance of Monique Basson as the Delilah of the storyline, Jill, whose equally naked performance brought the necessary support to Ruygrok’s role, to instill the sense of reality and power of that scene. But who better to affirm support for this daring role of Alan Strang, than world class South African Veteran Stage great, Graham Hopkins. Hopkins plays the psychiatrist, entrusted to get answers from the disturbed boy, showing subtle hints of being somewhat disturbed himself.
For me there was just a chemistry that sparked between Hopkins and Ruygrok, which made it work. Their characters were in constant conflict, compromising tussles and even though some may argue that there was a notable sense of discomfort between these two, it was exactly that, which caused their interacting roles to be as mesmerizing as it was.
Maggie Gericke, Andrew Roux, Marc Goldberg, Cassandra-Tendai Mapanda and Len-Barry Simons completed the rest of the cast, acting as various supporting characters, but mainly as the life within, and bodies of the horses, very incremental to the plot of the story. Initially, I thought that the well-toned bodies, slim, yet sexy sleek physiques of these actors, were used to create, or even emphasize the idea of a sexy theatre play, with the nude sex scene everyone knew was coming. When you get to the bottom of what is indeed happening, you realize that these sex-appealing bodies, and their intimate, luscious interactions with the disturbed young Alan, were the actual core cause, responsible for the psychological riddle that unfolds during Equus.
At the end, Equus, the powerful, yet deep-cutting play, is a stage production, which was made just more spectacular with Marcel Meyer, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Marc Goldberg on Abrahamse’s creative team. Effects, surrounding the fixed set of a stable for the six horses, included effective lighting design, which gave the theatregoer just that additional push into the intended direction to where it should go. Not to mention how the calculated positioning of certain lighting effects added goosebumps to clever choreography of Alan riding his horse, at the end of act one.
With the lights, smoke, simple props and sexy artists, came the masks of horses’ faces, which I think could not have been more mesmeric. Designed in such a way, even the slightest movements and tilting of their faces, could non-verbally tell a tale of its own… No wonder, young Alan became obsessed, psychologically enslaved, and in a way corrupted by these creatures, completely creating some sense of empathy with the audience, for the twisted, and also some scary viewpoints, Alan made known throughout his consultations with Dr. Martin Dysart.
Equus is a theatre play, but in its real definition, a pure piece of art, which means it will by some not be comprehended as intended, appreciated as justified, or even be praised as the magical piece of theatre I got to experience. With so many elements, magical theatre techniques, a story that will leave you cold, and yes, the naked sex scene that turned into the most powerful emotional breakdown you will ever see on a stage, the fact is that you will have to go judge the success of this production, for yourself.
Please be reminded that this Production, is not for the feint hearted and I think that if you are an old-school conservative sceptic, rather stay away, than to be scarred for life.
I have added the link to the Official Synopsis of Equus below, if you feel the need to be informed about this masterpiece, in order for you to enjoy all the theatrical elements of this play, without the unnecessary confusion… lol, like I was confronted with.
Equus will run in Montecasino until 26 May 2019.
This Review was edited by Genevieve Viera