Thursday, 2 October 2014

Equus, Canberra Rep

Peter Shaffer's drama is a modern classic. Stripped down to the essentials, it's an exercise in pure theatre as a psychiatrist investigates the fractured psyche of a damaged young boy - combining tight dialogue, lighting, sound, physical movement and staging in a shattering narrative.

It's not, however, the tightest play ever written. There are some quite rambling monologues for the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Jerry Hearn) in which he internally examines his motivations and, despite Hearn's best attempts, this doesn't quite grab us to the dramatic core as much as we care about his patient, Alan Stang (Benjamin Hardy). It could be a personal preference that I can't quite be as drawn in by the middle-age angst of a professional as I am by the dangerous combination of emotions that Hardy creates - a boy whose fevered imaginations on religion, sexuality and society lead him into disturbing territory. Hardy has the strange ability to jump in seconds from a physically angelic child to a sullen teenager, and then to provide a disturbingly vacant stare as the shattered person Alan has become, and it's truly fascinating to watch.

Around these two performances is a strong ensemble. The six horses of the chorus (Graham August, Melissa Gryglewski, Ben Harris, Ben Kearney, Erin Pugh and Nikole Rene Souza) are a strong physical presence throughout - observing, silently judging. S.E. O'Brien's masks are a great, simple stylised design, deployed powerfully and carefully as the play progresses (initlally only handled by the chorus, they aren't all worn until the final sequence - when finally all six are in play, the tension is at its height). Elewhere in the cast, Olivia Sparrow's kind, compassionate Jill is a highlight. Ian Croker and Nikki-Lynne Hunter go beyond the slight cliches of the script of censorious-aetheist-dad and religious-overly-indulgent-mother to reveal two people who are trying their best to live their convictions and raise a child, not just simple single-issue-monsters.

barb barnett's direction pulls this longish evening (two and a half hours) together with a strong sense of builidng tension to the final exorcism. Supported by Ian Croker's rich scenic design, Penelope Vaile's varied costumes, Greg Bateman's dense and clever sound design (as the rhythmic noises onstage transfer from the actors to the soundtrack and back again without apparently missing a beat) and Jon Grotto's sharp and intelligent lighting design, she uses a simple, horseshoe-shaped arena with a few benches and a raised bar to bring us closer inside the mind of one damaged boy.

This is important work that plays to the mind and the heart, with one superlative "where has this actor been and when can I get to see him again" performance at the centre. Strongly recommended.

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