AUTHOR: Peter Shaffer

VENUE: St James Cavalier

DATES: 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 November 2007

DIRECTOR: Marcelle Teuma

CAST: Alan Paris, Sean Buhagiar, Lilian Pace, Colin Willis, Jo Caruana, Pia Zammit, Jean Pierre Agius, Valerie Blow, Jan Zammit, Clayton Camilleri, Jovan Pisani

SUMMARY: Peter Shaffer’s great classic about a boy who blinds six horses. An insight to man’s need to worship and the distortions forced on that need by so-called civilized society.


“I only have one word: INCREDIBLE.” -Ralph Cassar,

"We were treated to a number of fine performances this season, so selecting the cream of the crop was not easy. We were however mightily impressed by two performances by young, comparatively unknown actors, Sean Buhagiar in Sulari and Equus and Chris Galea in Mercury Fur.  As you'd expect we also saw some fine performances from the more established thesps. We've already mentioned Manuel Cauchi and John Suda, but there were also fine characterisations from Alan Paris in Equus, Edward Mercieca and Paul Portelli in SeaScape and Stefan Cachia Zammit in Tattoo." -Showtime, 6 June 2008

"Also enjoyed during the past season were Unifaun's Equus, Masquerade's Alarms and Excursions and F & M's SeaScape." - Showtime, 6 June 2008

“Man has a deep and natural desire to believe in a creator and this need for belief gives us purpose in life. Peter Schaffer’s 1973 play, Equus, certainly tackles the notion of belief and the need to worship in a most tangible and powerful way. Since its revival earlier this year at the West End, starring Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe and the cheeky innuendos about Harry Potter’s magic wand, Equus has been quite the play of the moment. It is a pity that such a powerful and moving play should be publicised simply because of a scene where the characters appear naked. Having been to see our home-grown version of the play last Saturday at St James Cavalier, I can confidently say that Unifaun Theatre’s production has done Schaffer’s brilliant script justice.

In essence, the narrative unfolds from the point of view of a psychiatrist, Dr Martin Dysart, interpreted very sensitively by Alan Paris, who is treating 17-year-old, Alan Strang for having inexplicably blinded six horses with a hoof pick. Dysart feels ill at ease with this particular patient not because he despises the senseless and cruel crime which the boy has committed, but because he somehow feels the boy has something that Dysart himself lacks. Throughout the play, Dysart alludes to the fact that he is not entirely happy with his role as a psychiatrist and that his family life is not as enviable as it seems.

The more Dysart tries to understand and delve deeper into Strang’s psyche, the more he questions his own sense of purpose as well as that of the greater majority of us who are termed and indeed consider ourselves to be “normal”. Normality, belief and worship are all linked with what makes us passionate and ardent as opposed to what makes us complacent. Dysart begins to worry that by trying to give the disturbed and decidedly traumatised boy some mental peace, conventional healing will completely destroy his innate capacity to believe and worship, ultimately leaving him purposeless and hollow. Strang, whose religiously devout mother Dora and completely secular and strict father Frank, send him mixed messages regarding the way he should view belief and spirituality, ends up going beyond the confines of conventional theistic belief in his search to satisfy a growing desire to be passionate about something.

Sean Buhagiar, who plays Strang (the blatant pun on the word “strange” here, is a stroke of genius - placing the boy one vowel away from madness) does so maturely, although it is quite clear that he is still new to playing lead roles. Mr Buhagiar is a diamond in the rough with the potential to do well and his experience in this role will certainly help him. It takes a brave man to portray a role completely and literally denuded of all the props which the theatre usually offers. Paris portrays Dysart as a passionate and compassionate man who is frustrated by his mundane and detached married life, who realises that by pushing Strang to reveal his innermost secrets, he is also confirming what he had long suspected about his profession - that what is acceptable does not always bring out our full emotional strength.

In the flashback scene leading up to the actual crime, Alan is accompanied by Jill, a character who comes across as a fun-loving teenager and is interpreted by Jo Caruana with charming freshness. The staging and lighting in this scene were excellent - steering it clear from the voyeuristic flesh market it could have been, and creating a poignant, artistic dénouement of the most crippling yet passionate and raw human emotions which can leave us feeling vulnerable and drained.

In terms of setting I found the un-cluttered, minimalist set very effective. I am not, however, entirely convinced that the pale blue shade was the best choice. What worked very well were the lathes of wood making up the stable-door backdrop, as well as the use of the metal strip on which the horses’ hooves produced a very realistic and evocative sound. Having mentioned this sound-effect, I cannot but commend the team who made the horse heads and feet, which were styled most artistically and managed to capture the equine majesty and spirit. This brings us to Schaffer’s most challenging concept yet - that Strang manages to sublimate the identity and spirit of a horse into a “god-like” equine being who is present in all horses, and his supernatural hold in both religious and sexual terms on Strang’s life is such that it turns into an obsession. It is not uncommon in literature for the horse to be given the status of a revered entity which is highly evolved and in some ways more rational than man himself - one need only look at Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels.

Strang feels the need to commune with Equus in a fortnightly ritual where man and horse become a single entity when Strang rides a horse bareback and naked - a beautifully staged and directed scene which earns director Marcelle Teuma a thumbs-up for having really brought out the full emotional effect that such an experience can have on an impressionable young man. This equine god at first seems to be infallible, but when Strang’s father, played extremely convincingly by Colin Willis, is proven to be very fallible in the most human of ways, then Strang begins to question the omnipotence of Equus himself and, as the programme blurb says, dares to defy his own god when his god’s eye is upon him.

Mr Willis got into character perfectly and was as credible as could be hoped for. Lillian Pace as Dora Strang, portrayed her role as a concerned mother who is set in her ways well, while Pia Zammit as Hester Salomon, brought a bit of kindness and common sense into the equation. Life was skilfully breathed into the scenes where Alan Strang encounters the horses by Jan Zammit who played the Horseman/Nugget (the main horse), while Valerie Blow as the nurse and Jean Pierre Agius as the stable owner, Harry Dalton, both contributed positively to the play’s development.

Ms Teuma’s directorial choice of presenting the play as a direct address to the audience works much better, in my opinion, than the more common choice of other directors to have the play take place before a silent on-stage jury. By making us both judge and jury of this analytical drama, she has allowed us to ponder the choices of worship, normality, defiance and passion for their elusive complexity.

Equus is not a play to be missed.” - Andre Delicata, Weekender, 10 November.

“I was riveted by then performance; Alan I expected to be a splendid Dysart but as for the wonderfully intense performance of Sean Buhagiar; I was stunned by the way he carried it off.” -Kenneth Zammit Tabona.

“Paris certainly seizes your attention at every second as Dysart. He is the polished professional with his friend Hesther, a magistrate who may be a little sweet on him (played with beautiful restraint and a hint of hidden depths by Pia Zammit) and is very good with Alan’s parents and in the early scenes. He shows his quality however, as he gets deeper and deeper into the case and begins to feel it is also about himself.” - Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times, 11 November.

“Among the supporting cast, Colin Willis as Alan’s father, bluff and arrogant until his secret is found out, and Lilian Pace as the mother, who truly held my attention in her big Act II speech, were outstanding. The three horses were impressive.” - Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times, 11 November.

“Alan is played by a young actor, Sean Buhagiar, who is having the rare experience of appearing nude in one scene of this, his first play in a public theatre. He is a talented young man who is, I suspect, a comedian by nature and will, I am sure, succeed very well in comic roles because there were moments when he was funny without even trying.” - Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times, 11 November.

The Strang familyThe psychiatrist

The love for horsesAccepting the case

The RideThe Ride

The StablePsychiatry in session

The mother

pictures by Joseph A. Borg

Open Unifaun Theatre Productions