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A CurtainUp Review

Equus Rides to Broadway

Passion,can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.
— Dysart

Daniel Radcliff in the Broadway Production of Equus.
Daniel Radcliff in the Broadway Production of Equus.
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Daniel Radcliffe has now tested his acting skills on both sides of the Atlantic. As was the case in London, the big buzz was about how he would do when he took off those big Harry Potter glasses and let the audience have a closer look at those blue eyes. . .and more, intriguing still, when he removed his clothes and gave the audience a peek at him in the altogether. According to our London critic Lizzie Loveridge, Radcliffe did just fine, as did his Harry Potter colleague and Tony Award winning (for The History Boys) Richard Griffiths as his psychiatrist. Griffith too is on board at the Broadhurst, as is the London design team.

As Shaffer explains in a brief postscript added to the program notes for the original production reprinted in this much hyped import of the 2007 London revival, he long withheld permission for new large scale productions because he was concerned about changes in psychiatric practice. Rightly so. The views of R.D. Laing (a Scottish psychiatrist whose controversial theories included a belief that psychotics inside mental institutions have as much to teach the "normal" world as the other way around, no longer stir much interest among modern psychiatrists.

Actually, the phenomenal success of Equus was less about it being great play than its dazzling theatricality and Shaffer's ability to set up a sort of battleground for two men representing opposite approaches to passion—in Amadeus the able but conventional composer Salieri sees his talent shrink next to that of the wildly unfettered Mozart; in Equus Martin Dysart realizes that his disturbed patient has turned the conflicting influence of his mother's extreme religiosity and his father's atheistic and phony morality into a passion more ferociously exciting than anything he has ever known.

For all that Dysart's guiding young Strang to relive his crime and what led up to it is more than ever a lot of psychobabbling balderdash, it makes for timeless onstage razzle-dazzle that's fully realized in Thea Sharrock's production. While Radcliffe is now two years older than his character, it's noticeable only in the maturity and depth of his performance.

As for the over-hyped nude scene (which is actually a double take itas it includes Anna Camp as Jill Mason, the young girl who helps him get the job in the stable), it's subtle and very well done. But actually, the most erotic scene is when Alan embraces the horse Nugget (Lorenzo Pisoni) in the highly dramatic Act 1 finale and becomes one with his "Godslave, Faithful and True." Griffith is forceful as ever as the psychiatrist, though I think the viewers sitting in the very dramatic looking onstage seats (like a jury at a trial or students at a university for psychology majors) are likely to catch everything he (or for that matter, anyone else) says when facing front.

The Broadway transfer has suffered no serious losses by the integration of American actors. T. Ryder Smith (long overdue for a Broadway role) is outstanding as the father, especially in the scene where he confronts his son and Jill on their one and only date at a porn movie house. Kate Mulgrew who at times seems to think she's in a different play, as she keeps crossing her legs in the manner of a B-Movie nightclub chanteuse. Roberta Maxwell, who played Jill in the original production, was less actressy in another and intriguingly staged and cast production I saw three years ago at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (review).

Whatever the merits of Griffiths and Radcliffe and company, I agree with Lizzie Loveridge that the horses are the natural stars of the show. Lorenzo Pisoni is magnificent both as the Young Horseman and the horse Nugget and the current actors playing the other horses are as awesomely costumed and watchable as ever and Lizzie's overall appraisal of this revival applies now as then.

By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Cast:Richard Griffiths (Martin Dysart), Daniel Radcliffe (Alan Strang), Anna Camp (Jill Mason), Carolyn McCormick (Dora Strang), Lorenzo Pisoni (the Young Horseman/Nugget), T. Ryder Smith (Frank Strang), Graeme Malcolm (Harry Dalton), Sandra Shipley (Nurse) and Kate Mulgrew (Hesther Saloman). Collin Baja, Tyrone A. Jackson, Spencer Life, Adesola Osakalumi, Marc Spaulding (Horses). Designed by John Napier
Lighting by David Hersey
Sound by Gregory Clarke
Movement by Fin Walker
Stage manager: Susie Cordon
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes includes one intermission
Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200.
From 9/05/08; opening 9/25/08; closing 2/08/09
Reviewed By Elyse Sommer October 2, 2008

London review by by Lizzie Loveridge

Without worship you shrink. It's as brutal as that.— Dysart
Daniel Radcliffe as Alan Strang
(Photo: Lili Weber)
Interesting choice. Daniel Radcliffe the young star of the Harry Potter movies takes his first part on the London stage with this revival of Peter Shaffer's play about a psychiatrist and his deeply disturbed teenage patient. Richard Griffiths, who is known to Curtain Up readers for his stage performances, Hector in The History Boys and most recently in Heroes, is also known to Harry Potter fans as Mr Dursley, Harry's evil uncle. Here Griffiths plays the altogether more benign therapist who is confused as to whether he can cure his patients. In one of those interesting castings that hark back over time, that only theatre does so well, Jenny Agutter who played the girl in the 1977 film of Equus, thirty years later takes the role of the magistrate, colleague and friend to the psychiatrist Dysart. So how does the young seventeen year old Radcliffe do? He does very well.

Of course it is also a brave choice because Equus has a scene with nudity and explicit sex which has to make the production off limits for very young Potter fans. But Radcliffe is a professional and seems unfazed by all the attention that the press has focussed on the nudity. At least we are spared the sight of Richard Griffiths in the altogether although he does go in for a stripping away of his mind as Martin Dysart reflects on what he feels is the pretence of being some sort of expert in human behaviour. As a play I think Equus is less shocking and less effective than when I first saw it at the National in 1973 but I am sure that is because the subject matter was then completely unknown.

What the play is not a suitable vehicle for is the kind of star, celebrity quality the young Radcliffe has attached to him. His part is about a deeply disturbed boy whose behaviour is at once inexplicable, pagan and brutal. The audience does not need to be well-disposed to him. They do not need to like him or to laugh too enthusiastically at his jokes. So his very celebrity works against the ethos of Shaffer's play. This is not the actor's fault but that of a celebrity soaked audience. To give an example where an actor's star quality can be incorporated into a play, take The Iceman Cometh starring Kevin Spacey. Many of the early scenes are filled with anticipation as they talk about the imminent arrival of Spacey's character thus harnessing the excitement both of the appearance of the character and of Spacey himself.

Having said this, the opening scene of each act features an evocative low lit montage of Alan Strang (Radcliffe's character), his back to us, standing, his arm stretched up, holding the neck of a horse, Nugget (Will Kemp). We see the muscles on the boy's bare back and those on the horse. These scenes convey the worship the boy has for the horse in a quiet moment . As Dysart tells us he would stand like this, embracing Nugget for a long time.

The horses are the natural stars of the show. Mostly played by dancers, the experts in movement and led by one of Matthew Bourne's stars from Swan Lake, Will Kemp, their presence on stage captures the imagination as they whinny and stamp their hooves but not too much so. They are above all beautiful, majestic creatures and we can see why the young Alan Strang fell in love with them.

Richard Griffiths' portrait of the cerebral and concerned Dysart is effortless acting. He is a consummate professional and totally convinces as his character, losing his own personality to become Martin Dysart. He isn't afraid to stumble occasionally as the real psychiatrist would as he thinks about what he is saying. The play is as much about the imperfect science of the mind as it is about the boy and Griffiths excels in these reflective roles. He takes acting to new heights of realism. I was also very taken with Will Kemp's cameo as the beach rider, the Young Horseman, who takes the six year old Alan for his first horse ride much to the consternation of Alan's parents.

The set is endlessly flexible, monochrome, a black surround with a series of white boxes that can be rearranged as a bed , as chairs, as a desk, or as stable furniture. The horses stand in their stalls circling the stage. The lighting is atmospheric and, as in the original, some of the audience are set above the rear of the stage as if a jury watching courtroom proceedings. I suspect that Thea Sharrock's direction is true to the original as are the designs of the steel framed horse heads and raised metal shoe frames for the actors to sound hooves.

I see that Equus is destined for New York, presumably with its two main stars intact and I suspect that young Daniel Radcliffe will wow them there as he has wowed them here. Whatever will he do next after this theatrical horseplay?
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Griffiths, Jenny Agutter, Will Kemp
With: Jonathan Cullen, Gabrielle Reddy, Joanna Christie, Colin Haigh, Karen Meagher, Joel Corpuz, Jami Reid-Quarrell, Greig Cooke, Temujin Gill, Jonathan Readwin
Design: John Napier
Lighting: David Hersey
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Movement: Fin Walker
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 950 0915
Booking to 9 June 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th February 2007 performance at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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