Bench Theatre take on a controversial modern classic at The Spring Arts Centre, Havant

Jeff Bone and David Penrose in Bench Theatre's production of Equus
Jeff Bone and David Penrose in Bench Theatre's production of Equus
Katherine Ryan

REVIEW: Katherine Ryan at the Portsmouth Guildhall

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It was the play Daniel Radcliffe chose to star in when he wanted to step out of the shadow of Harry Potter.

And the power of Equus remains undimmed since its debut in 1973. Written by Peter Shaffer, Equus was inspired by the real-life incident of a 17-year-old blinding six horses as he tried to imagine what could have led to this horrific crime.

Now the award-winning Bench Theatre is taking on the challenge of this piece of groundbreaking theatre.

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 cruelty.

As the truth gradually emerges the psychiatrist finds that, paradoxically, his own life is in the witness box.

Director Alan Ward says: ‘When I first saw this iconic play in the 1980s, I was particularly struck by Shaffer’s amazing portrayal of Alan Strang’s character, demonstrating confusion, naivety, despair and, most of all, passion. Directing this play now gives me the chance to display my own passion for this incredible piece of theatre.’

David Penrose plays Dysart and says: ‘It’s been one of my bucket list parts of years. I was just delighted to get the chance to do it as it’s a play I’ve admired since I saw it in the 70s. I didn’t see the first production at the National Theatre which made Peter Firth into a star, but I did see that show when it transferred to the West End.

‘I’ve seen a couple of provincial productions of it, and then of course Daniel Radcliffe dusted it off to escape his Harry Potter iamge. It was perfect casting. We saw that producion in 2007 and it reminded me what a great play it is.’

David has worked closely with Jeff Bone, who plays Strang, as they attempt to get to the bottom their complex relationship. ‘I’ve worked with Jeff a lot, which has helped enormously to build a rapport between the two of us. It is an odd mixture – on one level it’s a paternal relationship as Alan’s the son he never had, and on a totally other level, Dysart wonders who’s the madder of the two? Who’s getting the least out of life? And of course he thinks that’s himself, not this troubled boy.

‘It’s so beautifully written, it’s not been difficult to unravel. He gives these wonderful speeches. It’s so seamlessly put together.’

I felt a great rapport with Dysart right from the beginning, maybe coming from a background of working as a teacher – I was at a sixth form college all of my professional life, so working with 17 year olds, not that they were going around blinding horses, I’ve had that relationship, in a professional sense.’

‘Dysart’s on stage the whole time, he kind of MCs the play in many ways. Other people come forward for their major scenes, but my role is to prompt them and to push the questions and to let them express themselves.

‘The range is excellent, so it never feels like you’re on stage the whole time, quite frankly.

‘I’ve never wrestled with “where is this man coming from?” because I’ve always understood him a bit.’

The production contains adult themes, strong language and nudity. The Bench recommends that it is unsuitable for under 15 year-olds.

The Spring Arts Centre, Havant

April 20-22, 26-29

thespring.co.uk