Northampton's Royal Theatre wanted some meat in its autumn season and opted for horseflesh. David Zoob directs Equus as an ensemble piece. "There's terrific power when an actor walks to a mask, puts it on then turns to us as the spirit of a horse. It refers back to ancient theatrical rituals and challenges an audience," says Zoob. Suzanne Astell's design has an iconic horse head looming over the stage in corroded brass, while Roderick Skeaping's new score uses what Zoob calls "`unearthly sounds over a meaty bass, literally to hit the audience in the guts".
The production's 1996 setting should avoid distractions from jarring period externals though it means some updating of brand names. Television advertisements, despised by Alan's father, are the boy's "perfect shield", says Zoob. "He has stumbled across spirituality and transfers sado-machistic interpretations of the Bible to a horse. It goes terribly wrong when he finds this is not socially acceptable."
For Zoob the play revolves around the boy's analyst, Martin Dysart. "He has intellectual notions of a spiritual ideal, of a vivid way of living, transcending crass mediocrity." He has no sex life, nor a son, and meets with no response when he reaches out emotionally to the magistrate. "Finally, he begs her for help but she is frightened to trust in a personal relationship. "
Rehearsals have investigated how the incompatible Strangs ever came together. "They were irrationally drawn to each other. We improvised what they'd have been like when they met. There was physical attraction. And neither was so set in their doctrinal ways. She'd have seen an obliging, self-improving, decent man. He did not see her religiosity then. He had an inferiority complex and she wanted to look up to him."
Northampton Royal Theatre to October 26. Tickets: O16O4 32533