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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Equus
Gielgud Theatre Spring 2007

Peter Shaffer's 1973 drama is one of the best plays of the past half-century, and is therefore a must-see, even in this oddly subdued production.

Shaffer wrote essentially the same play over and over through his career, calling it variously Royal Hunt of the Sun, Amadeus, Equus, Yonodab and other titles. In each, a limited, self-hating man encounters a genius/madman/saint and is driven to destroy him, damning himself in the process.

For my money, Equus is the best of the lot. In this case the antagonists are a child psychologist and a deeply troubled boy in his care. The shrink knows he can 'cure' the boy, but that by taking away his demons he will also remove all capacity for passion and splendour, in effect reducing the boy to the same level of despicable ordinariness that he sees in himself.

For what is essentially a two-hander - there are several secondary characters, but they make little impression - Equus is a very theatrical piece. The boy's disturbance is built around a private mythology and religion of horses, and the mystical figures of his horse-gods (played by actors with stylised horse heads) recur, particularly in two intense and potentially shocking scenes exposing the depths of the boy's passionate belief.

So the 1973 production benefited enormously from director John Dexter's striking visualisations of the play, along with his editing and shaping of Shaffer's originally sprawling text.

The director of this first major revival of the play, Thea Sharrock, has followed many of John Dexter's leads, but has somehow softened everything, rounding off the sharp edges, reducing the intensity, and making it all more polite and, inevitably, less powerful.

This isn't quite Equus-lite, but it is Equus-polite, Equus domesticus. It is still a powerful play, and if you've never seen it before, it will work. But you just might wonder what all the fuss has been about.

Many in the audience will come to see Daniel Radcliffe as the boy - yes, Harry Potter, and yes, he does have a brief nude scene. Radcliffe does not embarrass himself in what is essentially his first stage role, but he does not give a star performance.

He either doesn't have it in him to let the character loose or isn't quite ready to expose himself as an actor in this role must. And so we see a nice young boy with some emotional problems, not the orgasmic passion and pain that the shrink character fears and envies.

I remain convinced that Richard Griffiths is close to ideal casting for the role of the psychologist, though evidently it would take a stronger director than Thea Sharrock to push him to the level of self-awareness and self-disgust the character must reach.

Griffiths' shrink is too avuncular, too bemused by the ironies of his situation to really be shaken by them. There is a key climactic speech for the character in which he says, in effect, 'For all my bluster, I am a very limited and cowardly little man, and here is a boy having emotional experiences I can only wonder at, and I'm supposed to cure him?'

Thirty-plus years on, I can still shudder at the depths of self-hatred Alec McCowen exposed in the first production, and every other actor I've seen in the role has generated breath-holding that explodes in spontaneous applause from the audience.

Griffiths plays it with wry, self-depreciating humour, so that every line evokes warm laughter. The scene still works, but - like so much else in this production - it works in a safer, more polite way.

And that safe, polite quality colours the whole production. At the key moment when the boy gets to ride his horse-god - i.e., climb on another actor's back - Daniel Radcliffe is very visibly strapped into a safety harness. That may just be some new health-and-safety regulation, but it is emblematic of the whole.

There is clearly to be no danger of any sort on this stage, no threat to the audience's comfort and complacency. But threatening that comfort is what Shaffer's play is all about.

John Napier's design echoes his original visualisation in 1973, but with everything from the oblong blocks that make up the set to the stylised horse heads a little less hard-edged, a little more cushioned.

Even the reenactment of the boy's breakdown that climaxes the play is too prettily choreographed to express any real theatrical danger.

Jenny Agutter is serviceable in a supporting role without ever really making it her own, and the boy's parents (Jonathan Cullen and Gabrielle Reidy) are played too young and middle-class to create the psychological background the text posits.

The play is strong enough that it still works, even at reduced energy levels, and I would encourage anyone who has never seen it to go.

But, through directorial decisions or limitations, the overall effect - despite all the first-rate talent involved - is less of a first-class West End production than of a decent-enough touring production with a B-level cast.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Equus - Gielgud 2007