AISLE SAY New York

EQUUS

by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Starring Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe
with Kate Mulgrew and Caroline McCormick
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, West 45th Street
www.equusonbroadway.com

Reviewed by David Spencer

Can there be a genuine conflict of interest if the reviewer’s potentially conflicting loyalty is to his memories? There is nothing but nothing keeping me from reviewing the revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus with total fairness except the most vivid recollection of the original Broadway production (a replication of the premiere London production) of 1974. I saw it when I was in college (and just out of college) a number of times—every time the actor playing psychiatrist Martin Dysart changed. It was a heady roster of actors: Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins, Richard Burton, Alec McCowen (reprising the role he’d created in London), and Leonard Nimoy. The roaster of actors playing the troubled boy, Alan Strang, was not bad either: the first two became stars for a time, even into adulthood, and are still prominent showbiz professionals, Peter Firth (who also created the role in London) and Thomas Hulce. (The others have likewise continued working, if less prominently: Keith McDermott, Ralph Seymour and Michael Snyder.)

                  As you can read, I find it almost impossible to even discuss this play without the kind of intimate familiarity whose subtext is: “Gee, doesn’t everyone know this play?” But of course, everyone doesn’t. The premise is, briefly, that a case is brought to the desk of British county psychiatrist Martin Dysart whose specialty is troubled children; and as trouble goes, this is primo. Alan Strang, a 17-year old boy, has gone wild and blinded six horses with a hoof pick. As Dysart begins to unravel the mystery of Alan, he also brings to light an elaborate religion Alan has created for himself with a horse-god at the center. And while Dysart fully understands the need to remove Alan’s pain, he fears the consequences of removing his passion, Dysart himself having lived a passionless existence in a staid marriage for so long.

                  There are many who think the play is a metaphor for conservative society’s then even more pronounced discomfort with homosexuality, and the dangers of trying to cure it, but I’m not so sure. There’s no question that Peter Shaffer had that and other obvious issues tumbling about in his mind, but for all the play’s precision with language, imagery and revealing pieces of an almost neat puzzle (i.e. the gestation of Alan’s pathology), I think he was content to let some of it keep tumbling far beyond agit-prop metaphor. After all, Alan’s crime is a heinous one; after all, his parents’ repressiveness did not constitute abuse or negligence, nor was sexual intolerance an issue. (If every time one appears in the play, a horse = a homo, then, yes, that metaphor holds, but again, I believe Shaffer’s a more honorable storyteller than that, and means to embrace the ambiguities and ambivalences. And I would argue further that several speeches make that plain.) Indeed, what makes the story so rich is that the extremity of the case is what it takes to get under Dysart’s skin and provoke the questions that, by his own admission, he has avoided all his professional life—because they so impact his personal life as well. I’d contend further that anyone coming away from Equus with an easy answer, or believing that Shaffer means to offer one, is seriously missing the point.

                  But in a way, I digress from my own point. The production.

                   John Dexter’s original production was a (deceptively) no-frills playing space, for most of the play brightly lit. A wooden platform, semi-circled by a railing for leaning against or straddling, and not far beyond that, bleachers—there are always audience members onstage, and back then, except for select moments, actors sat in the bleachers too, and waited onstage for their cues to enter the playing area. The net effect was to start with something (again, deceptively) nondescript and gradually demonstrate how the (nearly) mundane could be transmogrified into the exotic and disturbing. 

                  As to Thea Sharrock’s new production…Certainly the extremities of emotion explored make it impossible for any sensitive professional to stage Equus coolly, yet, with its dark mood-lighting, mist effects, electric horse-eyes in the masks, I found myself distanced; as if Ms. Sharrock’s visuals were literalizing what I should think (i.e. Dysart discusses “the black cave of the psyche”). The large-bodied Richard Griffiths as Dysart, with a calm, tenor-ish voice that does not resonate, adds to this coolness, because he (and the director) are choosing to make him an undynamic man, I believe confusing his frustration at his own passionless life for an inability to tap into vehemence or zealousness of expression. He does find some of his righteous anger late in the play, but even then, it’s a sort of domesticated dog’s growl, not rage. Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe fares better as Alan, or anyway more accurately, because—while the role does leave lots of room for interpretation—ultimately it calls for an actor to expose primal animal urges and religious ecstasies. The role comes off as a tour de force no matter who plays it, and Mr. Radcliffe is on par with most of his predecessors, if not quite as transporting as Mr. Firth nor as oddly endearing as Mr. Hulce.

                  All this said, it is clear that, for many who are new to the play, the production is eminently satisfying. And even I found delights in it. It’s still a magnificent bit of writing, and I was much taken by new ways in found by the supporting cast, especially Kate Mulgrew as the magistrate and friend who brings the case to Dysart’s attention; and Caroline McCormick as Alan’s mom.

                  But still…I miss “my” Equus, not merely because it hit me at such a formative age, but because, all these years later, even in this day and age, I still think it’s the righter, savvier one. And yes, the more passionate one…

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