Review: Equus (Hart House Theatre)

by Jenna Rocca

There is not much to say about Peter Shaffer‘s seminal classic about one boy’s special sexy horse religion; it pretty well speaks for itself. I was glad to see Hart House Theatre’s production didn’t try to frivolously add to the text and really allowed it to stand on its own, underscored with beautiful staging, design, and soundscapes.

Of course Equus‘s most notorious element is the full-frontal nude scene that is required with the purchase of the rights to the text. However the most subversive element of the show is its potent message of non-conformity.

Elenna Mosoff makes her return to Hart House after finishing a program in the States in Theatre Direction. She has directed past performances at the University of Toronto cultural centre including hits The Rocky Horror Show and Reefer Madness. While she has always been drawn to controversial and slightly raunchier pieces, her interpretations are never gimmicky.

Jesse Nerenberg plays Alan Strang, a strange seventeen year-old boy who seems harmless until the day he blinds five horses with a spike. No one knows why he has the sudden outburst, and after criminal charges are laid the mystery is placed in the hands of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Peter Higginson), when Alan is institutionalized.

Of course he is not immediately co-operative, and responds to the Doctor only in commercial jingles like “Double your pleasure! Double your fun! With Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint Gum!” This only complicates the mystery as it is learned that Alan’s father forbids him from watching TV, which only makes the boy more obsessive about it when he can sneak in viewing time at a friend’s.

Dysart begins to make headway with “hypnotism” techniques that seem to give him a kind of relief, as he gives insight into his obsession with Horses and the “Eq” who he calls in his sleep; some kind of horse God that has possessed him.

This story is intrinsically elusive. Who or what is responsible for Alan’s delusions? His Socialist father? His hyper-Catholic mother? An incident from childhood when his father pulled him off a horse? His mother’s story-book reading in the voice of a horse when he was a boy? The power of the Great American Western Film? Perhaps some combination of all these things.

As it all boils down to the big reveal, Alan becomes stripped down almost willingly, as he is really under a placebo’s effect. As sly and cruel as the character seems, and Nerenberg plays him perfectly, he is ultimately a kind of terrifying and tortured victim; a mutant-bastard-child of the circumstances that created him.

It is a tragic story, but also a beautiful one. And the set is composed like a cage of the coldest steel scaffolding, strewn with swings from which all the actors gaze at the action for the entire duration. Five horses are also looming upstage, overseeing the mess: shirtless men wearing steel-tubed  horses heads.

My viewing partner who has read the text confirmed that all of these elements are explicit in the play: how the horses are to be represented, the fact that all the characters are always onstage, and most importantly, the strange humming “horse” sounds that emanate at certain points in Alan’s recollections.

My only concern was with the swings which sometimes the actors would literally swing on. Sometimes compulsively, sometimes playfully. It could be a bit distracting at times, as my partner agreed, but at other times very effective.  My favourite scene blocking was that in the porn-theatre which was perfectly executed with flickering lights and the clicking of a reel and all. I did forget they were on swings.

Anyone interested in seeing a beautiful staging of a contemporary masterpiece should enjoy this show.  The house was literally packed, so get your tickets while you can.


– Equus will be performed from this Wednesday the 24th to Saturday the 27th at 8 pm, and Saturday the 27th at 2pm

– Adult $25.00, Senior $15.00, Student $15.00, Wednesday nights: Students are $10

– Please note: Equus contains mature subject matter and full frontal nudity.

– for tickets call 416.978.8849 or visit

Photo of Jesse Nerenberg as Alan by Daniel DiMarco.

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* Please note: Equus contains mature subject matter and has full frontal nudity.