Award-winning director Ned Bennett talks about EQUUS and the challenges of taking on such a well-known play
This month sees English Touring Theatre bring a new production of EQUUS to Salford’s The Lowry.
Inspired by a true story, EQUUS tells the story a young man who brutally blinded six horses and the psychiatrist tasked with uncovering the motive behind the boy’s violent act. Written by Peter Shaffer, the gripping psychological thriller explores the complex relationships between devotion, myth and sexuality.
Ahead of its run at Salford’s The Lowry later this month, award-winning director Ned Bennett talks about the challenges of taking on such a well-known play and why EQUUS appealed to him.
What is EQUUS about?
Among other things, Equus is an incredibly sophisticated, visceral exploration of why people commit violent acts.
We are told at the beginning, much like a true crime podcast, what has happened; a boy (Alan Strang) has stabbed six horse’s eyes out. And then it is as much about why he did it as it is about how this case affects the physiatrist (Martin Dysart).
Peter Shaffer said he didn’t think EQUUS had a genre. What genre do you think it is?
What’s special about Equus is that is goes between different genres. At one point you think you can pin it down as a ‘Why dunnit?’ thriller and the next moment it becomes this profound philosophical meditation on religion and society. The play examines how religious worship can be transferred into someone’s own idea of what a deity is to them.
The next minute it becomes a theatrical, expressive, mercurial beast. The script manages to go between something incredibly sophisticated and cerebral and something visceral, exciting and suspenseful.
Why did you want to this project?
I’m fascinated how the play explodes open our understanding of our primal drives. One of the central conceits of the play is that if someone exhibits what might be described as abnormal behaviour, are they to be listened to or controlled? To this end Dysart falls under the R.D. Laing school of anti-psychiatry; these questions were widely discussed when the play was first produced in the early 70s and feel still resonant now.
How did it feel to take on such a well-known play?
It was exciting to be able to draw on the rich history of how the production was put together originally and marry this with this our creative team’s personal response to the text. The original stage directions contain a mix of practical notes and poetic expressions of how the play was first articulated.
The play relies heavily on movement direction, what was it like collaborating with Shelley Maxwell? And how did the cast prepare for their roles as horses?
It was joyous collaborating with Shelley Maxwell, she has such a rich vocabulary of a wide range of movement and choreographic styles, coupled with an extraordinarily lateral imagination. The guiding principle for this work was investigating how Alan Strang’s relationship with Equus shifts with his endowment of Nugget the horse and Equus the God. We workshopped a multitude of versions of the horses and did the obligatory visit to some stables to observe, groom and muck out the horses.
Did any of your previous work prepare you for the process of directing EQUUS?
When I started out directing I worked part-time for as a Learning Support Assistant in Primary and Secondary Schools with young people with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. I drew on these experiences in trying to understand these characters.
What’s next after EQUUS?
I’m looking to create an outright horror play!
EQUUS runs at The Lowry, Salford from 23 to 27 April 2019
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.