Call me an old cynic, but I can't help feeling that someone just couldn't resist the opportunity of making shed loads of cash by having Daniel Radcliffe - the young actor who's played the lead in all the Harry Potter films to date - get his kit off in this play. With the enormous media coverage the production has already received, I'm sure I could write about a totally different play here - as indeed every other reviewer and critic could too - and it wouldn't make even a minor dint in the numbers of people walking through the doors of the Gielgud Theatre over the next few weeks. However, Radcliffe's appearance might have a marked change on the kind of theatre-goers taking their first turn in the West End. No doubt there will be considerable numbers of teen Harry Potter fans streaming to 'Equus' to gaze, even if only fleetingly, on Harry's magic wand! But if you were expecting revelatory details from me, a life-long love of needling people will not allow me to say anything whatsoever. No not even a hint. Tough!
Written by Peter Schaffer and first performed at the National Theatre in 1973, 'Equus' (the latin word for horse) is a kind of psychological detective story. Alan Strang, a seemingly typical 17 year old boy, is brought in front of horrified magistrates on a charge of blinding 6 horses. One of the magistrates is so shocked that she seeks the help of child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by Richard Griffiths) to unravel the mystery of what made the boy commit such a heinous crime, and to attempt some kind of cure. Through interviews with the boy's parents and the lad himself, Dysart starts to slot the pieces of the jigsaw into place, and the climax of the play sees a reenactment of the crime in the stables where the boy worked. Schaffer based the story on a real crime - well, a crime reported to him by a friend. The details and characters, though, are totally fictitious.
This revival of 'Equus' is designed by John Napier – who also designed the original production. This time he provides a gloomy set which is almost totally black, shot through with intense lighting. In an echo of medical operations of the past, some of the audience are given the chance to sit on the stage in a gallery above the acting area, where they enjoy a kind of ring-side seat. The 6 horses are all played by actors (dancers for the most part, actually) and wear astonishingly fine horse masks made of glittering metal. Simple black boxes serve as beds and chairs, and the stage is ringed with the stable horse boxes. The overal effect is stark and doom-laden.
In spite of all the hype surrounding Radcliffe, 'Equus' turns out to be rather more about Richard Griffiths's psychiatrist than the horse-worshipping boy at the centre of the play. Indeed it's Griffiths who's on stage almost for the duration of the piece, acting both as narrator as well as psychological investigator. Griffiths adopts a fairly relaxed style, at least until the end of the play. This could be a chat with the next door neighbour over the garden fence, or with someone at the bar in your local pub. And even though it's a substantial portrayal peppered with dry humour and almost casual nonchalance, it might strike some as being just a little too casual considering the nature of the crime, and the medical professionalism expected of a psychiatrist. But such is the quality of Griffiths's acting, the audience immediately develop a rapport with him and he easily wins us over.
The most intriguing and interesting question for me was whether Radcliffe could pull off a substantial and demanding role on the stage. After all, there's a world of difference between doing a few seconds on a film set (maybe with lots of coaching before it) and playing to a large audience on stage for over 2 hours. In fact Radcliffe does manage, more or less, to pull it off. He certainly seems confident in the role, and presents us with a vulnerable, edgy, and sometimes rather scary, but naively child-like Alan Strang, whose been bombarded with differing philosophies and attitudes that have somehow got strangely jumbled in his brain and emerged as horse-worship.
Shaffer has come in for some stick from the critics in the past - and I suspect the octogenarian playwright will suffer again with this revival. Much of the criticism about 'Equus' revolves around spurious psychology. But I don't think that Shaffer is making significant psychological points, so much as making general observations. I certainly don't think he's advocating allowing horse-mutilating teenagers to walk the streets freely. 'Equus' contrasts the passion felt by the horse-admiring boy, and the psychiatrist whose life is dull and repetitive, and in his own view, rather meaningless. If anything, I think Schaffer blames society for making us conform to a norm that is largely bland and ultimately unrewarding. And it's no surprise to me that the general public often relate to and appreciate more in Schaffer's work than the jaded analytical critics.
However much one tries, it's incredibly hard not to see Harry Potter on stage, rather than simply an actor called Daniel Radcliffe. It spoils the appreciation of the piece, even if only to a relatively modest degree. It might also have spoilt Radcliffe's chances of playing in the remaining Harry Potter films if recent comments from the films' producers have been accurately reported - apparently they're a touch upset that their star wizard signed-up to perform in the nude. So, you have to give Radcliffe due credit – he's taken a substantial risk with his lucrative film work, as well as opting to 'bare all' in front of his devoted fans. Whatever cash he's earning for this revival run of 'Equus', he's also earned some admiration and respect.
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Dated, though still gripping psychological drama...Radcliffe's touching, little-boy lost Alan never convinces you he is wild with desire for horses or girls. Equus still fascinates, but this revival lacks horse-power." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, Powerful revival...Daniel Radcliffe brilliantly succeeds in throwing off the mantle of Harry Potter, announcing himself as a thrilling stage actor of unexpected range and depth." DAVID LISTER for THE INDEPENDENT says, "If the production is well served by Radcliffe, he is not that well served by the production. The director, Thea Sharrock, fails too often to capture the tension in this psychological thriller... No caveats can fully detract from the punch that this powerful and haunting play still packs." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Forget all the prurient press speculation about Harry Potter's private parts. The revelation of this revival is that Daniel Radcliffe really can act...As a story, it is compelling." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " Radcliffe proves an assured actor...though gripping and theatrically skilful, Equus is at root dated, pretentious and even a bit pernicious...good theatrical effect...an enjoyable play. "