Equus explores the horror at the heart of the normal

Nikolas-Prsa-as-Alan-StrangThis article first appeared in the September issue of 519 Magazine, available at more than 300 locations around Southwestern Ontario and online.

When I was 14 I had a teacher who would lend me plays so I’d stay out of trouble. One of those plays told the story of a troubled boy who loved horses, but one night attacked them in a violent frenzy, and the equally troubled psychiatrist trying to save him. But it was also about so much more: religion, sex, alienation, passion.

Over the years this story stayed awake in my mind, just under the surface, as I dreamed of ways I could someday bring it to life.

One week after autumn begins, Peter Schaffer’s Equus will open. How appropriate. Autumn is when the natural world around us dies in bits and pieces, with the promise of eventual rebirth come spring. It is also a time to reflect on where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. Autumn, I find, is sweetly unsettling: the season of horror – not in that cheap gory type we see splashed across cineplex screens, but bone-deep horror that invites us to confront our fears even as we tremble.

At its heart, Equus is about how and why we live the way we do. Think over the hundreds of moments that fill any given day of your life. Think about all the choices that led you into those moments. How many of those choices did you even make, consciously?

How many were made for you, out of habit and convention drilled into your mind from childhood onward? How many were made so you could be normal – so you could fit in to the world around you and feel accepted and comfortable by the demands placed upon your shoulders by family, friends, teachers, employers, even total strangers?

These are questions Dr. Martin Dysart has been asking himself – and they make him uncomfortable. When he meets Alan Strang – the teenage boy accused of stabbing out the eyes of six horses in the stable at which he worked – he’s already wracked with doubts.

Although Alan is his patient, and clearly disturbed, Dysart finds himself identifying with him. He starts to wonder: what does it mean to say that Alan is insane? Maybe Alan’s insanity is just what happens when someone can’t conform to a world to which none of us should conform.

Why stage Equus in 2018?

We have reached the point, finally, where we can no longer ignore the inadequacy of the normal world of commercialism, rationality, respectability, and polite obedience. Its empty rituals ignore our deepest desires and our craving for meaning, connection, and awe. What were sold to us as wide paths leading to whatever destinations we dreamed are cold, dark, dead ends.

Clearly, Alan’s life has led him to a twisted and violent place, where his budding sexuality and need for meaning have become one. Alan’s life – a life of pure passion, from the deepest suffering to the highest ecstasy – is alluring because the painful side of it seems avoidable if we have the will to change our world so it accommodates pure worship. Conformity is a choice we make in every moment – choices that force us to repress the primal parts of our nature.

There is beauty in confronting what horrifies us. Equus asks us to face it, and maybe even embrace it. At least a little.

Post Productions presents Peter Schaffer’s Equus at The Shadowbox Theatre (103b – 1501 Howard Ave) Sept 28 to Oct 13. Tickets available at postproductionswindsor.ca.

Photo: The Headshot Company