As I sat down in the Byre Theatre on Wednesday night to see Equus’s final performance, I watched as people scurried their way through the rows of an almost full house, drinks in hand, excitedly chatting away. As fumbling occurred to find seats, I could see eyes, torn away from conversations and fixed on the stage, observing the odd, almost unsettling still life displayed before us.
All of the actors were already on stage, sitting immobile in the background, all but two, standing centre stage: the Horseman (Louis Catliff), head covered by a metallic horse headpiece, gently swaying his body, mimicking every movement of the animal he was portraying, and young Alan Strang (Jared Liebmiller), hands pressed against the former’s chest and shoulder, head nestled in his neck. Such a peculiar setting was enough to attract the audience’s attention before the play even commenced; already captivating us into this bizarre world.
As the play began, I was immediately struck by the fluidity with which director Alexander Gillespie crafted this performance. With all the characters on stage at once, and the abstract nature of Peter Shaffer’s lines from switching monologues to present and past scenes could’ve caused a confusing blur, it was instead perfectly portrayed. The actors all sat silently as statues on boxes in the background, Dr Dysart’s (Gareth Owen) desk on the right, Alan’s bed on the left, and crates set up to create a diamond in the centre, surrounded only by a circle of rope and three benches; a relatively simple stage, allowing our imaginations to run wild.
Upon seeing this seemingly simple, yet strange set at the beginning of Act I, I was hesitant to see how the dynamics of the play would follow through. I assumed the actors’ performances, along with lighting and sound, would either prove to be enthralling or utterly boring, especially considering the numerous monologues strewn into the play, most of which are not always crowd-pleasers. However, I found myself more than pleasantly surprised.
After having seen a glimpse of Jared Liebmiller and Gareth Owen’s acting during a rehearsal, I had a prior feeling for their power and presence on stage, however, by the end of Act I, I was left totally mesmerized by both their performances. Owen’s voice, characterization, and control, alongside Liebmiller’s contrasting manic expressions and exclamations created the perfect dynamic duo of actors; shining brilliantly amongst a solid cast.
With the monotonous ticking of Owen’s pen, followed by the climatic end of Act I, these final scenes saw the audience further hypnotized into Martin Dysart’s office. Captivated, yet steeped with discomfort, I averted my eyes to see the audience’s faces glowing red from the stage, where Liebmiller sat atop Catliff’s shoulders, surrounded by the other ‘horses’, shouting his monologue with such conviction, that his voice, the sound effects, red lights and mist caused all of our hearts to shudder until the final line of the act: “Amen”.
Continuing with the shock tactics Gillespie had in store for us, the shorter Act II was marked by a faster pace, alternating between increasing heart rates, and cleverly inserted bits of comic relief. This act toyed with the audience’s senses, playing on our tensions and angst to ultimately engross us into the absurd, alongside the maddening Dr Dysart.
When the actors all came off of their boxes to surround Liebmiller in a hubbub of murmurs and distorted lines, the audience was also propelled into this exhilarating craze. Even as Liebmiller and Cate Kelly (playing Jil Mason) were ultimately displayed, completely naked, in front of a theatre full of people, the audience’s attention did not sway. In a play where risks and shocking effects were plenty, this one particular moment was tastefully timed and presented, further proving Gillespie and the actors’ skill in creating an invigorating performance.
After Liebmiller’s final chaotic and cataclysmic demonstration of how Alan blinded six horses with a metal spike, the audience was quickly snapped back to reality, observing a boy lying on crates, covered only by a blanket, and Owen, lying around him giving his final monologue, allowing our hearts to calm down, and our minds to stay blank in awe, admiration and utter confusion.
The audience was left with ears ringing with Owen and Liebmiller’s voices and dreams marked by dark visions of Equus. As I could feel upon leaving the theatre, see in the audience’s eyes, and hear the post-performance gossip throughout the emptying Byre, it was clear that Gillespie and his team put together a standout production.