Tyrone A. Jackson
T. Ryder Smith
If you’ve bought your tickets to this fall’s revival of Equus merely to ogle Harry Potter’s penis, you’re in for a surprise.
Besides for the ten-minute nude scene, sure to whet the appetites of the voyeurs in the audience, there is much else to admire about Thea Sharrock’s sharp production of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 Tony Award-winning play, which is sure to be a standout in a season packed with revivals.
The play revolves around a psychiatrist named Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths), a middle-aged man who has always played by the rules. He’s been a faithful husband, a patient medical practitioner, and generally content – until, that is, he comes in contact with young Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe).
Referred to Dysart by Hesther Saloman, a magistrate seeking to save the boy from life in prison, we soon learn that Strang has savagely gouged out the eyes of six horses in the course of one emotionally charged night. Dysart, intrigued by the boy’s case, helps him open up about his experiences, bringing about a series of religious and sexual revelations, told mostly through a series of thrilling flashback sequences.
The dichotomy between psychiatrist and patient soon reveals itself as the driving force of the play. While Alan acts on his innermost desires, no matter how cruel, Dysart is restrained by reason, inordinately romanticizing pain and violence. He enacts his most frenzied impulses only in his dreams, when he imagines himself a masked Greek officiator leading the ritual slaughter of children. Dysart and Strang are perfect foils for one another, manifestations of the dueling Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of human nature.
In choosing to take on the volatile role of Alan Strang, Radcliffe defies expectations, proving himself a worthy young actor. Not only is he literally physically naked on-stage, but he’s emotionally so as well. It’s certainly a shrewd business move and a savvy way to defy Harry Potter typecasting. But more than that, Radcliffe possesses a stage presence to envy. His depiction of Alan Strang early on as unbalanced and perpetually poised to implode collapses in on itself midway through the play, blossoming masterfully once again, like a phoenix out of the flame, into a commanding portrayal of awkward, tortured youth.
Though Radcliffe proves an impressive presence, however, the anchor of the play is Richard Griffiths as Dysart. Marking his first appearance on Broadway since his Tony-winning performance as Hector in The History Boys, Griffiths grounds the play through his emphasis on Dysart’s intellectualism. He speaks deliberately and augustly, giving weight to the wonderful speeches Dysart is given in Shaffer’s text. Having placed a blanket tenderly over a weary Strang, Griffiths lays his soul bare in the final gripping moments of the play. Griffiths brings to the role of Dysart a sense of unwavering dignity, even in the face of self-doubt, an essential quality for an actor in this role.
As for the aesthetic of the play, designer John Napier wisely keeps the stage largely uncluttered. A semicircular gray space, the set simultaneously brings to mind a doctor’s operating theatre, a Greek amphitheater, and a stable, six stalls cut into the back wall, which also houses two rows of on-stage seats. Four movable gray boxes on a central Greek cross-shaped platform made up the rest of the scenic elements, which easily adapt to suit the setting.
Director Sharrock uses Napier’s set to create a malleable sense of space, one in which scenes overlap and characters’ flashbacks inhabit the present like conjured ghosts. Her sense of ritual is impressive, adding a sense of authority to the production that makes an audience feel like active participants. Particularly evocative is a scene set in Dysart’s office in which Alan’s father Frank recalls walking in on his son kneeling before a picture of a horse and flagellating himself. As Frank recalls the scene, Alan appears to reenact it, giving a living, breathing presence to Frank’s memory, crying out to the picture on the wall.
The horses in the production are brought to anthropomorphic life by six muscular men dressed in brown jumpsuits and metal heads, poised like nimble dancers on hoof-shaped shoes. Their hybrid status – halfway between man and beast – highlights another of the play’s key themes, the idea of horse and rider as one entity. The effective costumes are also designed by Napier. Fittingly the horse’s movements are subtly equine, full of neck-twitches, strident trots, and gallops. Fin Walker, credited here with movement, puts the horses to good use, particularly in the first act’s final scene, in which Alan rides the phantom horse Equus through the late-night smoke and nettles. As played out on the rotating elements of the set, this moment between horse and rider is breathtaking – taking on an almost religious quality.
For Shaffer, ideas of religiosity and worship are key. Alan Strang, devout in his Christian faith, has allowed himself to be blindsided by his own belief system. Through his crimes of passion and his connection with horses, he feels the throes of spiritual connection, a sensation Dysart has never known and one he may never come to experience. Instead, Dysart constructs his own personal sense of ritual, underscored by the understanding brought about by intellectual thought and constrained by earthly responsibility.
Through the lens of the theatre, our very own constructed temple of the imagination, we are allowed entry into Dysart’s world as we sit watching in the dark, partaking in our own lavish ritual. Ultimately, even if the characters in the play find themselves as bound as we by mortal instincts, the collective experience of watching this thrilling new production take flight holds its own near-religious sense of devotion. It’s a rare experience indeed to be so moved at the theatre. Having experienced Equus with my own eyes, I’m proud to count myself among the converted.