On paper, Peter Shaffer's Equus is extraordinarily vivid piece of literature. Onstage, it is a visually engaging masterpiece, where the complexity of breathing life into characters and settings by the perfected interplay between actors and the stage is an enthralling and emotional experience for all those involved. Like all theatric successes, Equus has endured various convoluted productions of the magnificent original, sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing, to poke and prod the audience into thinking-questioning- imagining.
A handful of directors have fallen prey to the vicious desire present within all of us: to turn a play into real life; to make it relatable to surroundings we are so familiar with. Those who do- fail; fail to understand the concepts that Equus strives to imbibe in its readers. Equus is not a pretty fairy tale dressed in the tattered rags of disillusionment, Equus is macabre and bare, miserly in its pity for a nai??ve audience that likes to think itself jaded. In Shaffer's words, "Upstage, forming a backdrop to the whole, are tiers of seats in the fashion of a dissecting theatre... In these] sit the audience". If one allows their imagination to roam as it will (and definitely as Shaffer wished it to be) the audience will form a rather imposing backdrop, hundreds of eyes that look down upon the tormented actors and silently, quietly, judge. Eyes are an important recurring motif in Equus: those of Equus, Alan's jealous God, that perpetually watch Alan are emulated by the horse-actors and the audience that view the stage from above and the sides.
Not only is the judging audience meant to be a sort of stand-in for God, but they also represent the masses; the forever judging, cruel, intransigent and sentient being that is society. The stage that the audience looks down is sparse, and movable. This allows the "square of wood set on a circle of wood" to be rotated, to mimic the various settings as needed: Alan's house, the stable, Dysart's office, and the field where Alan performs ecstatic and ritualistic worship.
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Shaffer describes the rail that surrounds the wooden square as "[resembling] a railed boxing ring". This boxing ring has been interpreted in many different ways, one critic compares Alan and Dysart as competitors of a sort, "the boxing ring [fits in with] the intimate contest in which psychiatrist and patient are locked". In a play whose protagonist strives for freedom, the boxing ring may also represent the inevitable battle against society and the "reality principle" that Alan's worship will lose, a "ritualized public combat".
The rails represent bondage, chains, turmoil, and signify to the audience the tension, conflict and the unsatisfactory conclusion to Equus. Simply seeing them onstage is enough to subliminally communicate to the viewers the angst and epic struggle between right and wrong within the play. The benches that seat the other actors in Equus: the horses, Alan's parents, the nurse, Dalton, Jill, are significant in the fact that the actors never leave them- unless they are called upon stage.
They sit and watch the play along with the audience, and play the role of society in Alan's life. They too, judge Alan, they judge his worship, and they condemn it. The horse masks that are hung behind the stage once again provide the images of eyes, the eyes of God, that watch and mark Alan as one of their own. The actors that play the horses, when not in character, join the crowd that watch on in distaste as Alan passionately, ecstatically, communes with his God.
Different directors have taken Alan's "God" to skyrocketing and plunging levels of meaning simply by dressing the horses differently. The initial production of Equus (directed by John Dexter) had the horses dressed in "tracksuits of chestnut velvet", with "light strutted hooves, about four inches high". The hooves (or "hoofs" as Dexter called them) have been a staple in all versions of Equus, but directors have taken liberties with the tracksuits and gloves of chestnut velvet that Shaffer prescribes.
Some productions have well muscled, bare-chested men portraying the horses, with "strapping to suggest bridles", whereas in others, the actors playing the horses were completely nude, adhering to Alan's notion that "The horse isn't dressed. It's the most naked thing you ever saw! " The nudity of the horses also creates an atmosphere of homoeroticism and homosexuality, which some critics have interpreted as the true source of conflict in Alan's life instead of religion. Peter Shaffer was deliberately trying to create imposing, menacing figures when he created the horses, not "the cozy familiarity of a domesticated animal".
The actors, he wrote, "must never crouch on all fours, or even bend forward" He insisted that all the motions of a horse must be created "mimetically", through movements of various body parts. The actors who play the horses undergo vast amounts of training, and most commonly comprise of dancers, used to swaying movements and odd body contortions. Not only did Shaffer decide to distance his horses (who may even be called gods) from animals by having the actors playing them stand upright, but also by not giving them paper Mache horsey-jokey heads.
The horse masks used in Equus are "tough masks made of alternating bands of silver wire and leather". These huge, regal and god-like caricatures of horse heads enable the actors to toss and turn them with equine ease. Created by Dexter, they were deemed "risky" by Shaffer as they projected a double image: the horses head, and the clearly seen actor's head underneath it. Shaffer was eventually convinced by Dexter, who argued that Shaffer's Equus was about a double image and then horse masks would simply be a physical manifestation of it.
As with the horses, directors have indulged themselves in taking liberties with the lighting of the play, although the instructions are not as rigorous for the lighting as it is for the horses. Some directors have used colored lighting to evoke a rich, captivating scene for Alan's memories, and bleak, white lighting for the scenes which take place in Dysart's office. Shaffer himself describes the lighting for Jill and Alan in the stables as "anti-erotic", it is meant to be a dissection of a troubled mind, not an excitingly pornographic remembrance.
The lighting is used to its best effect when Alan blinds the horses, the "cones" of light that surround the "archetypal" the horses out of a nightmare, creates an eerie, haunting image of light flashing on the flowing masks, an image truly out of a nightmare. Most interesting of all though, is the actual dissection of Alan and the tantalizingly concealed hints that clue the audience in too late: that Equus is a story told by Dysart. He is the only actor to ever address the audience, and the odd flashbacks and strange time lapses make sense... f one were to consider them happening in Dysart's memory. The fact that we are seeing Alan through Dysart's eyes changes the way we view Alan. We grow to pity him, feel empathy for him, and even envy him. This is not because Alan is a genuinely compelling character (his story told from the viewpoint of Dysart's associates, perhaps, would cause the audience to turn against him), but because Dysart envies him and admires him and views Alan positively, as something good, something worthy of sympathy.
The story being told from Dysart's point of view also makes it seem more like a psychological detective story, complete with a crime, clues, and a whydunnit conclusion. Peter Shaffer's dramatic psychological thriller, Equus, is definitely the sum of all of its parts. A glorious mix of suspense, drama and pure controversy, Equus comes alive to the audience in a provokingly tangible way as a shimmering, stomping, tossing deity.
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