Harry Potter – naked. Boy wizard in the buff. Yes, even if you’ve never set foot in a theatre in your life, you couldn’t really have missed the one-note media buzz surrounding Daniel Radcliffe’s stage debut.
In many ways all this fuss over a ten minute nude scene is a shame, and I only hope that the hype (admittedly encouraged by the producers, with all those bare-chested press shots of Radcliffe) eventually dies down, as this revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus is a powerful and engaging piece of theatre in its own right.
Originally staged in 1973, Equus hasn’t dated half as badly as, say, Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt Of The Sun, which was given a ropey revival at the National last year.
The play tells the story of psychiatrist Martin Dysart who agrees to handle the case of a boy who has committed a monstrous crime against six horses. This boy, Alan Strang, played by Radcliffe, comes to Dysart angry, frightened and deeply confused. A young man who, under the twin influences of his very religious mother and his atheist, socialist father, has allowed his obsessive love of horses to grow into a form of worship.
As Dysart begins to pick apart Alan’s fervent and complex inner life, he becomes increasingly aware of his own staid, passion free existance and begins to wonder that, if he cures Alan, he may be dooming him to the same.
For all the fuss about Radcliffe, the real star of the show is Richard Griffiths. His Dysart is both Alan’s saviour and, at the same time, a deeply unhappy and unfulfilled man. At the start he performs a masterful soliloquy which intrigues and engages the audience. Griffiths is completely assured and his performance here is even better than his recent triumphant turn in The History Boys.
And, yes, in answer to the question that everyone will be asking, Radcliffe also acquits himself well, leaving Harry Potter far behind and suggesting he has a promising acting career ahead of him. He succeeds in making Alan seem both menacing and vulnerable. And while there is a fair amount of nudity in the production, it is never gratuitous; both Radcliffe and co-star Joanna Christie take off their clothes for one scene which is handled subtly and successfully. Radcliffe’s voice is perhaps a little too soft for the stage but his performance, while initially hesitant, picks up pace as the evening progresses.
Perhaps more importantly, there is a strong sense of chemistry and trust between Griffiths and Radcliffe. Through working on the Harry Potter films together, they have obviously developed a deep bond which translates well on stage, allowing both actors to give strong and startling performances in their scenes together.
Designer John Napier has created a simple yet deeply atmospheric set, with onstage seating to give the production an in-the-round feel and create a real sense of intimacy. The set is essentially just a raised platform and a series of boxes. There are six entrances on to the stage, arranged in a way that brings to mind horses’ stalls.
The ‘horses’ also add to the sense of menace in Thea Sharrock’s claustrophobic production. Large metal cage masks have been placed on the actors’ heads, and this, along with their long athletic bodies and the metal shoes they wear, brings a convincing equine quality to their performances. They toss their heads and moveme in a skittish fashion, as they stamp their metal ‘hooves’ on the floor. There is a beauty to the way they look, a lithe and other-worldly air.
This is a powerful piece of theatre, unsettling and intriguing, and hopefully these qualities will transcend the superficial buzz around Radcliffe’s nudity. In many ways, it’s a critic proof show a certain section of his fan-base will book tickets regardless but those not in that camp, and I was one of them, should not simply dismiss this as a bit of silly stunt casting, because this is a truly gripping and rewarding revival and well worth seeing.