Equus

Written by Peter Shaffer

Thursday 20th April to Saturday 22nd April and Wednesday 26th to Saturday 29th April 2017

Directed by Alan Ward

AuthorPeter Shaffer

Peter Shaffer

Sir Peter Levin Shaffer, CBE (15 May 1926 - 6 June 2016) was an English playwright and screenwriter of numerous award-winning plays, several of which have been turned into films. He was born to a Jewish family in Liverpool, the son of Reka (nee Fredman) and Jack Shaffer, an estate agent. He was the twin brother of fellow playwright Anthony Shaffer.

He was educated at the Hall School, Hampstead, and St Paul's School, London, and subsequently he gained a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study history. Shaffer was a Bevin Boy coal miner during World War II, and took a number of jobs including bookstore clerk, and assistant at the New York Public Library, before discovering his dramatic talents.

Theatrical career

Shaffer's first play, The Salt Land (1954), was presented on the BBC. Encouraged by this success, Shaffer continued to write and established his reputation as a playwright in 1958, with the production of Five Finger Exercise, which opened in London under the direction of John Gielgud and won the Evening Standard Drama Award. When Five Finger Exercise moved to New York City in 1959, it was equally well received and landed Shaffer the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.

Shaffer's next piece was a double bill, The Private Ear/The Public Eye, two plays each containing three characters and concerning aspects of love. They were presented in May 1962 at the Globe Theatre, and both starred Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams. Smith won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Leading Actress at the age of 27.

The National Theatre was established in 1963, and virtually all of Shaffer's subsequent work was done in its service. His canon contains a unique mix of philosophical dramas and satirical comedies. The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) presents the tragic conquest of Peru by the Spanish, while Black Comedy (1965) takes a humorous look at the antics of a group of characters feeling their way around a pitch black room - although the stage is actually flooded with light.

Equus (1973) won Shaffer the 1975 Tony Award for Best Play as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. A journey into the mind of a 17-year-old stable boy who had plunged a spike into the eyes of six horses, Equus ran for over 1,000 performances on Broadway. It was revived by Massachusetts' Berkshire Theatre Festival in the summers of 2005 and 2007, by director Thea Sharrock at London's Gielgud Theatre in February 2007, and on Broadway (in the Sharrock staging) in September 2008. The latter production, which ran in New York until February 2009, required the stable boy to appear naked; its star, Daniel Radcliffe, was still associated with the Harry Potter films intended for general audiences, and this led to mild controversy.

Shaffer followed this success with Amadeus (1979) which won the Evening Standard Drama Award and the Theatre Critics' Award for the London production. This tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and court composer Antonio Salieri who, overcome with jealousy at hearing the "voice of God" coming from an "obscene child", sets out to destroy his rival. When the show moved to Broadway it won the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play and, like Equus, ran for more than 1,000 performances.

After the success of Amadeus, Shaffer wrote the play Lettice and Lovage specifically for Dame Maggie Smith in 1986, for which he was nominated for another Tony Award and Dame Maggie Smith eventually won the Tony Award for best actress after three nominations in 1990. Lettice and Lovage also enabled Margaret Tyzack to win the award for best supporting actress, and the production was nominated for best direction of a play, at the 1990 Tony Awards.

Screen adaptations

Several of Shaffer's plays have been adapted to film, including Five Finger Exercise (1962), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), The Public Eye (1962), from which he adapted the 1972 film Follow Me! (1972), Equus (1977), and Amadeus (1984), which won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Shaffer received two Academy Award nominations for adapting his plays Equus and Amadeus for the big screen. For writing the screenplay for Equus, he was nominated for the 1977 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar but the award went to Alvin Sargent, who wrote the screenplay for Julia. For writing the screenplay for Amadeus, Shaffer received both the 1984 Best Screenplay Golden Globe and the 1984 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

Personal Life

Shaffer was homosexual but did not write explicitly about it. His partner Robert Leonard died in 1990. Shaffer died on 6 June 2016 at the age of 90 while on a trip to the southwest of Ireland.

Awards

Shaffer received the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theatre in 1992. Two years later he was appointed Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University.

In 1993 he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) by the University of Bath.

Five Finger Exercise won the Evening Standard Drama Award when it premiered in London and then won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play when it moved to New York City.

Equus won the 1975 Tony Award for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics' Circle that year as well. His screenplay adaptation of the play was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1977.

Amadeus won the Evening Standard Drama Award and the Theatre Critics' Award for its initial London production. Upon moving to Broadway, Amadeus won the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play. His screenplay adaptation of the play won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as well as the Golden Globe Best Screenplay in 1984.

Lettice and Lovage was nominated for another Tony Award, and for her performance in it, Dame Maggie Smith won the Tony Award for best actress after three nominations in 1990. Lettice and Lovage also won best supporting actress for Margaret Tyzack and was nominated for best direction of a play in 1990 Tony Awards.

Honours

Shaffer was awarded the CBE in 1987 and named Knight Bachelor in the 2001 New Year's Honours. In 2007 he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

PlayEquus

In a Hampshire stable, disturbed youth Alan Strang, commits an unspeakable act of violence. He is sent to psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart, who begins to explore the boy's past in an attempt to understand his motives. It proves to be the most challenging case of his career as he struggles to interpret the motivation for Alan's brutality. As the truth gradually emerges the psychiatrist finds that, paradoxically, his own life is in the witness box. Inspired by a true story, Peter Shaffer's passionate and gripping psychological thriller is a timeless classic and a cornerstone of contemporary drama.

Equus is one of the greatest English post-war plays. As a work of art, it is magnificent. Rarely does a contemporary drama probe so deep - an electrifying evening of theatre

The Sunday Times

Please note this play contains adult themes and is unsuitable for persons under 15 years of age.

The Bench Production

Equus Poster Image

This play was staged at The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre (formerly Havant Arts Centre), East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.

Cast

Martin DysartDavid Penrose
NurseClaire Lyne
Hesther SalomonLorraine Stone
Alan StrangJeff Bone
Frank StrangAllan Jolly
Dora StrangMegan Green
Young HorsemanCraig Parker
Harry DaltonPete Woodward
Jill MasonLeigh Cunningham
NuggetCraig Parker
Horse 2Sally Hartley
Horse 3Ceri Tipler

Crew

Director Alan Ward
Producers Alan Ward and Marion Ward
Stage Manager Marion Ward
Assistant Stage Manager Tasmin Halford
Lighting Design Phil Hanley
Sound Design Phil Hanley
Lighting Operation Phil Hanley
Sound Operation Phil Hanley
Set Design Alan Ward and Pete Woodward
Horses Heads Design and Creation Jules Simmons and Sue Dawes
Programme Editor Derek Callam
Handbill Design Dan Finch and Pete Woodward
Photography Jacquie Penrose
FOH Manager Janice Halsey

Director's Notes

We all hear snippets of news stories and then think no more about it; Peter Shaffer heard a snippet of a story - just one detail about an horrific act committed by a disturbed young man at a stable. It aroused an intense fascination in him and was the inspiration of the play Equus. Shaffer then invented the characters, the background and the history of the troubled youth; everything, in fact, except the crime itself.

I first encountered Equus in the early 1980's as my own interest in the world of theatre emerged. I was particularly drawn to Shaffer's character development; in Alan Strang he highlights his naivety, his weaknesses, his confusion and, most of all, his absolute passion. In stark contrast, Shaffer creates a complete paradox in Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist who evolves from a confident, self-assured professional to a man broken by his own self-doubt.

My own love affair with theatre is driven by passion. As an actor, I was passionate about my craft, examining my characters to ensure I could bring them to life on stage. In later years, as a Director, I am passionate about every play I become involved with; I am moved by the writing of the great playwrights Osborne, Pinter, Miller, et al - and always drawn to iconic plays.

The Bench Theatre is the perfect vehicle for my favoured genre of play and I feel privileged to be able to bring Equus, the play that had such a profound influence on me at the start of my love affair with the Arts, onto the stage at Havant. I hope the audience will be as enthralled by the story as I was myself as a young man all those decades ago. But most of all, I really hope my own passion for theatre shines through my wonderful and talented cast in this challenging, but massively rewarding, production of Equus!

Reviews

The NewsJames George

Peter Shaffer's 1973 play is the latest offering from the Bench Theatre company. Based on real events, 'Equus' tells of a psychiatrist's attempts to understand why a 17-year-old boy, Alan Strang, blinded six horses with a hoof-pick while facing his own demons.

Director Alan Ward has set 'Equus' simply and effectively, focusing his audience on Shaffer's text; half-a-dozen hay-bales serve to represent a hospital, cinema, shop and stable. The play requires nudity and non-professional companies so often opt to avoid this. Bravely - and rightly - Bench thumb their collective noses at coyness and Jeff Bone, who plays Alan, and Leigh Cunningham, as his love-interest Jill, bare all in the devastating climax to the play.

Bone's performance is effective, but centres on breathless suffering; it needs greater variety. Cunningham is wonderful as the upper-class Jill, eager to form a relationship with Alan, and both terrified and horrified at his near-possession by his horse-god.

Craig Parker, Sally Hartley and Ceri Tipler, bedecked in horse-masks, are also very effective cast members - particularly in the blinding scene.

The show however is, hands down, owned and controlled by David Penrose as psychiatrist Martin Dysart. Penrose never fails to deliver and his delicate balancing act between in-command doctor and damaged human being is a joy to watch.

Southampton EchoHam Quentin

Curtain Call Review

The horses which are such an essential presence in Peter Shaffer's potent, powerful, unsettling drama are represented in Bench Theatre's production by just three actors in black body stockings and horse head shaped masks (designed by Jules Simmons), mostly simple movements indicating their equine status in the case of Sally Hartley and Ceri Tipler - while the well cast, tall, imposing Craig Parker as the third, 'Nugget', manages to keep his dignity even when piggy backing Jeff Bone as troubled young Alan Strang around the stage.

Director Alan Ward combines these with strobe lighting and human nudity to great effect when we finally learn how Alan is driven to blind the creatures he loves.

Before this David Penrose holds our attention as the psychiatrist Dysart, ably supported by Lorraine Stone as the magistrate, Megan Green and Allan Jolly as Alan's parents, and Leigh Cunningham as Jill, who precipitates the crisis.

Portsmouththeatre.comMatt Gibbins

The Bench are quickly becoming renowned for their high standard of work, having recently celebrated multiple wins at The Totton Drama Festival with 'Login Error', and their latest instalment 'Equus' is certainly another to add to their string of hits.

Set in 1979, the piece tells the story of 17 year old Alan Strang, who after blinding 6 horses is committed to a psychiatric hospital. There he meets weary but experienced Dr Martin Dysart, and together they dissect the psyche of Alan, with dramatic results.

Director Alan Ward and his team are ticking all the boxes in this production. Phil Hanley's impressive use of lighting is of particularly note here, the space is used to great effect and the effects of this are heightened by how well the space is segmented and sectioned off. The intense implement of strobe lighting, though potentially overused, does what it needs to, and leaves you feeling disorientated. The sound, also designed by Hanley is perhaps used too infrequently to get the most potential, but when done so, helps set the scene wonderfully, the opening of both acts is particularly eerie.

Jules Simmons has done an impressive job with her creation of the horses, using simple yet effective head pieces, and Ward has matched this beautifully through Craig Parker, Sally Hartley and Ceri Tipler's physical portrayal of the horses. It was nice to see a drawn back physical approach that felt more ethereal, giving the sense that each horse was more of a deep metaphorical representation of Alan's mind.

The text in this play is simply stunning, and is surely a gift to any actor that undertakes it. Though not everyone managed to deliver with as much skill as others, some were particular standouts. Leigh Cunningham as flirty Jill, once again lends her smokey tones and shows us, with complete ease, how pacing and rhythm is really done. Megan Green as mother Dora managed to squeeze every dramatic drop out of her lines, the subsequent scenes with son Alan were utterly believable, and her heartbreaking rant to Dr Dysart was a particular standout.

Playing Dr Martin Dysart was David Penrose, and really it's his grasp of the text which is the highlight of this show. Having taken the bulk of the story, narrating and guiding us from beginning to end, Penrose manages to deliver his lines with almost a poetic quality.

Storming his way through however is the highly able Jeff Bone as our show's focus, Alan. If the facial expressions alone aren't enough to convince you, then Bone's dynamic approach to his lines will captivate you. The role itself is notorious for its full frontal nudity and it takes a brave actor to do this, and therefore Bone must be applauded. This is local theatre at its very best, and is nothing less than a brutal attack on the senses, which is just as it should be.

Production Photographs