Set play

10th March 2000 at 00:00
EQUUS. By Peter Shaffer. Salisbury Playhouse.

Peter Shaffer's 1973 play, Equus, explores the nature of normality and the mystery of madness. It shows how a primitive urge for worship can turn into mental anguish and how materialism can stifle passion.

"Equus is a very powerful piece of contemporary drama," says director Joanna Read, "and good experience for young people coming to the theatre. It asks lots of questions, such as what isthe nature of passion and belief? How do you find a place for them in a computerised age?" Alan Strang, a disturbed 17-year-old, is admitted to a mental hospital after blinding six horses with a metal spike. His psychiatrist, Dysart, gradually uncovers the primitive ritual, in which Alan secretly worshipped horses at night, that led to the atrocity. But as he cures his patient, he realises that in returning to normality Alan has lost his creative spirit.

"One of the things that has changed since the play was first put on," says Read, "is that things are becoming less tangible; think about the Internet, video games and digital media. It's not easy to reach out and touch things any more.

"Alan's passion for horses means he's discoveredsomething very real andvery meaningful. It's very moving that the boy hasfound a way of expressing love. It reminds you howdifficult it is when you're a teenager to know what you'resupposed to think and feel."

Alan, she stresses, is "not a normalboy who goes off the rails, he is very individual and very disturbed". Torn by the opposing views of his parents, he "takes his mother's orthodox Christianity as a form on which to hang his beliefs. So when he worships the horse god, he fits his own passion into that structure," she says.

Is the blinding of the horses an inexplicable act? "When you grow up, you have to leave childish things behind you," Read says. "So although the act is very extreme, it isn't totally inexplicable." Alan has to "bring one phase of his life to an end before he can start a new phase", which is his relationship with Jill, a teenager who works at the stables.

The play can be read as an exploration of conflict not between good and evil, but between two different ways of being right. "With Dysart and Alan, you're never sure who needs who most," says Read. "There's a strong suggestion that the middle-aged professional has a lot to learn from the young boy, who is so immediate and up-front."

At the end, Alan is "neutered". "Dysart is also aware of what he is lacking: both are missing something," says Read. "The world prevents you having bothpassion and rationality."

The play's echoes ofGreek tragedy, says Read,are amplified because the auditorium has been turned into a theatre in the round, with the audience on all sides "bearing witness to what's happening on stage".

From March 24 to April 8. Box office: 01722 320333

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