Equus: A Horse and his Boy, and one Psychonaut’s Dilemma

Posted on October 31, 2008

As I left the Broadhurst Theater, I nearly collided with a huge crowd just outside the doors – dedicated Harry Potter fans who braved the chilly evening for a chance to see Daniel Radcliffe, who has become all but synonymous with the boy wizard. I smiled – if they had seen his electric performance a mere hour before, they might never see those films quite the same way again.

Equus is Radcliffe’s Broadway debut, and an import of the highly successful 2007 West End production. It also stars Richard Griffiths, which Potter fans will instantly recognize as Harry’s loathsome Uncle Dursley. This excellent revival of Peter Shaffer‘s 1973 play is about a troubled young boy who happens to have a bit of a thing for horses.

Radcliffe takes up the demanding role of Alan Strang, a disturbed seventeen year old who in a paroxysmal fit, blinds six horses under his care. This act, based on a real incident playwright Shaffer learned about, baffles the courts, his family, the stable owner, and ultimately, magistrate Hesther Saloman (a humorously campy Kate Mulgrew), who begs child psychologist Martin Dysart (Griffiths) to analyze this strange child. Most of the play focuses on Strang and Dysart’s sessions, as Dysart looks for some palpable explanation for this bizarre, horrifying behavior.

Much of the play’s excitement and tension comes from watching these two very complex characters interact. Although this is Radcliffe’s first role in live theater, his stage presence is irresistible; he brings a precise intensity to Strang visible in the striking stare they both have in common. Athletic in his every move, he seems to flow credibly, effortlessly, across a vast sea of emotions – rage at being misunderstood, awe at his spectacular visions, the love and affection for the horses (which become a central part of his life), and longing – first for companionship, later for pleasures of the flesh. Because Radcliffe’s performance is so convincing, each of his scenes comes across as distinct pieces to the puzzle of Alan’s psyche; by the final scene, I felt as if I understood Alan; if not all of his passions, then at least his final thoughts leading up to his grotesque act.

Griffiths’ Dysart is another well-acted, sympathetic character; a calm, pensive, genial man of science – seemingly a perfect foil for Strang, whose vivid equine fantasies (brilliantly re-enacted on stage) form the basis of the boy’s feverish personal faith. Stuck in a loveless marriage, where his only pleasures come from admiring Hellenistic art in books and photographs, he makes a not-so-subtle point of admiring the boy’s “worship”, and wondering if, by attempting to “cure him”, he is removing something something beautiful within the child’s madness. “A doctor can destroy passion, but never create it!” he asserts. It’s touching watching Dysart and Strang slowly form a bond of trust as these not-so-different beings begin to understand each other – so much so that Dysart is able to “fill in the blanks” of Alan’s thoughts during the climactic stable scene.

Speaking of which, most of the giggling rumors and whispers about this production center on Radcliffe’s nudity during said scene. Stepping back from the role of self-appointed critic for a bit, I can say that it’s all true – you will indeed get to see Harry Potter’s…magic wand. But the full frontal exposé is far from gratuitous, and is very tastefully handled; there is a cute sort of awkwardness between the characters as it happens, but neither of them lose composure or presence as they slip into their birthday suits. And truthfully, by the time you witness some of the things Strang and Dysart uncover during their sessions, little of what happens later will shock you.

The production itself is rather minimalist, which works very well, considering that most of our interest lies with our two protagonists. Taking the place of real horses are a team of six skilled actors in beautiful silver equine masks, which lend a homoerotic undercurrent to their amorous interactions with Radcliffe. Ominous lighting and smoke effects lend force to Strang’s psychosis while mostly avoiding excessive melodrama.

Whether they blame Strang’s problems on the Devil, religion, the pangs of adolescence, or just plain schizophrenia, many of Equus’ supporting characters seem to have some sort of agenda about Alan’s problems, as well as the world’s in general. You will enjoy the play best if you leave yours at home, and instead focus on Radcliffe and Griffiths’ masterful performances, as they embark on a remarkable journey of self-realization. For Radcliffe, roles like these prove that he’s much more than a (excuse the pun) one trick pony, and a gifted actor who has quite an illustrious career ahead of him.

I think it’s well worth catching this limited engagement before it closes in February.

» Filed Under Arts, Everything and Nothing

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