Daniel Radcliffe had me at hello. In the revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 psychological thriller
Equus, which just transferred to Broadway from London’s West End, the 19-year-old actor first appears out of the darkness, shirtless, barefoot, in jeans, looking like a desperate, disoriented animal. Tense, alert, almost otherworldly. Another figure emerges from the murk, a tall man with a spectacular body, his bulging muscles barely contained by his
chestnut- colored t-shirt and trousers, his face obscured by an enormous gleaming sculpture of a horse’s head. The boy approaches, places one hand on the man’s sculpted pec, and leans himself up against the Adonis-like torso. It’s a breathtaking image of innocence and magnificence, power and surrender, channeled directly from a lonely gay kid’s homoerotic dreams and a fitting prelude to Shaffer’s still-powerful play.
Radcliffe (whom the world knows as the cinematic avatar of Harry Potter) plays Alan Strang, a 17-year-old part-time stablehand who’s confined by court order to a mental hospital after inexplicably blinding six horses. The detective hired to solve this mystery is psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played with superb understatement by Richard Griffiths, best-known as the rotund, beloved, boy-groping teacher onstage and onscreen in
The History Boys). The boy arrives traumatized and mute with rage, and the play progresses through a series of therapy sessions through which he tells and eventually shows what happened. The picture forms of a not-too-bright, somewhat unbalanced kid from an ordinary middle-class family whose religious and sexual conflicts bled their way into a fragile psyche.
But Equus is not one of those engaging/sudsy therapist-as-hero heartwarmers a la
Good Will Hunting or Prince of Tides. Shaffer stylizes the drama from the git-go. Some audience members sit onstage in a medical-theater-like gallery that explicitly evokes ancient Greek drama, as does the chorus of men representing the horses in their steel masks and hoof-like kothurni. Acclaimed 32-year-old British director Thea Sharrock unstintingly applies lighting and sound effects to turn the show into a bang-for-your-buck thrill ride. At the first-act climax, when Alan orgasmically re-enacts his horseback sexual initiation, I was ready to reach for the poppers myself. Luckily, the detailed, honest performances by Radcliffe and Griffiths strike a satisfying balance so the spectacle never tips over into sensationalism.
The original production of Equus was practically my first Broadway show, and I remember vividly how dazzled I was by the play and the terrific cast, which included Anthony Hopkins as Dysart, Peter Firth as Alan, the legendary Marian Seldes as the magistrate who rescues the boy, and as the girl with whom he attempts to prove his manhood Roberta Maxwell (the superb Canadian lesbian actress who played Jack Twist’s mother in
Brokeback Mountain). I fretted in advance that the revival would expose the play as dated, if not ludicrous (as Sidney Lumet’s horribly literal-minded film version did). To my surprise, the new production improves on the original in many ways.
Just as Shaffer’s Amadeus portrayed mediocrity’s envy of genius,
Equus centers on the valorization of Alan’s mad passion by the supposedly normal shrink, who escapes his sterile marriage by flipping through art books about Mt. Olympus and taking package tours of ancient Greece. “I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field!” In the early ‘70s, the self-critique of mental health practitioners could morph into dangerously romantic views of insanity, not to mention a kind of overblown, pretentious self-flagellation. Without denying Alan’s pain or his own helpfulness, Griffiths’ Dysart conveys not only a wistful longing for the road less traveled but a sensible and unsentimental questioning of contemporary medical practice. Might some valuable human experiences be lost when emotional highs and lows are increasingly medicated out of existence?
And whereas the original production, true to its period, was somewhat coy about its homosexual subtext, here Alan’s predicament is presented right out front, underscored by the hypermasculinity of the horsemen’s bodies. Certainly, gay men of any age who were forced out of the closet through heterosexual failure will be moved witnessing the naked Harry Potter as he plays out, with remarkable skill and vulnerability, that life-changing trauma.
The Advocate, November 18, 2008