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“Extremity is the point.”
So, says Richard Griffith’s psychiatrist character about his new patient, a young man remanded to the custody of a mental hospital after a disturbing attack on horses.
Dr. Dysart utters the line twice in the beginning of the play. But you don’t hear it again after intermission, as he finds himself mired deep into the complex case of his newest client young Alan Strang.
All of the buzz surrounding the original London production of Equus would make the casual observer think that extremity is the point. The lurid crime. The animal abuse. The sexuality. The child perpetrator. The nude scene. And, in the case of this production, the “Harry Potter Naked” headlines.
But that’s only on the surface. “Extremity” is what makes us look.
Equus does not play the “shock” card lightly as it plumbs the depths of the extremity of beliefs. Religious faith, the role of the family, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a healer — all are explored.
According to a page in the Playbill, playwright Peter Shaffer had heard about a young man who had blinded horses in a stable. With only that detail, Shaffer had wondered how that could have happened. The play Equus is the result.
In productions of Equus, some audience members are seated on the stage. That way, we see that young Alan has a lot of eyes upon him – not just those of his doctor or the horses in the barn.
This production is no different, except those audience member are seated in a mezzanine overlooking the action. As Alan reveals his secrets to the doctor and when the stage becomes the stable, the audience seated above the stage appears to be shadows watching from the hay loft.
So, as Alan insists that he’s being watched – we know that he is. And it’s not just us. Or the horses.
Griffith plays the lead, not Radcliffe
The headlines may belong to Daniel Radcliffe’s nude scene, but much of the play belongs to Griffiths’s character. As Alan’s psychiatrist, Griffiths’ Dysart shambles with his voice quiet and calm.
I kept wishing for more energy out of him, despite his role as a soothing counselor, but as the play progressed, I realized that his subdued demeanor was the point. This is a man in the autumn of his years who’s realizing that he’s not really living.
Familiar Faces in the Supporting Cast
As I’ve often noticed while watching Broadway dramas, faces in the supporting case will look quite familiar. Ed. Note: I watch a lot of science fiction and cop shows.
TV watchers will recognize Kate Mulgrew, formerly the Captain of Star Trek: Voyager, as the brisk court magistrate who persuades Dr. Dysart to take the case.
Carolyn McCormick, who plays Dr. Elizabeth Olivet on the various Law & Order franchises, plays Alan’s devout mother. Trek fans will also recognize her as Minuet, or Min, Cmdr. Riker’s “first” wife on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
So, how did Radcliffe do?
The role of Alan Strang is one of those dicey-to-cast roles. You need a youth who’s bold enough to handle the nudity and sexual content, athletic enough to handle the action and talented enough to bring life to the role. But you really need a teen. Not a youthful adult.
Hard to believe, but Radcliffe will soon age out of the role.
In the beginning of the play, Alan stews with silent rage and coiled energy. As he reveals more of himself to his doctor, that energy is unleashed. Alan comes alive when he talks about his self-invented religion of worshipping horses. For more, check out this blogger’s review of a London performance.
And the Horses
Lithe-but-muscled male dancers portrayed the horses. Their costuming combines sleek muscle with steel. Cage steel masks with occasional glowing eyes deepen the delusions of Alan’s fantasies about horses. Steel frame platform shoes representing hooves rang with emphasis on steel plates in front of the stall doors. For photos, click on this review in the New York Times because there are a couple of slideshows of stills from the production.
It’s the Seventies, dude
Some criticism has been launched that the play is dated. You do see its ’70s roots in some details. Characters report meeting at a porno theater in these days of more private online porn.
But I think what dates the play the most is the theme that we are expected to find an offender who has committed lurid, violent crimes admirable because he has passion.
I remember that theme from “A Clockwork Orange,” in which a young sociopath was given passion for Beethoven as a redeeming feature. We are expected to grieve when the violent teen sociopath Alex has been cured of his violent tendencies, but has lost his ability to appreciate his beloved “Ludwig von.”
Idealistic mid-20th century audiences sighed, “He is cured, but at what price?”
A more cynical modern audience is liable to see the same thing and crack, “Worth it.”
In Equus, we do hear of the collateral damage of Alan’s attack. The horses are blind and traumatized. A community is horrified. A family is shattered. And a young woman will never be the same.
How I felt about watching it
I’m glad I didn’t “go in cold.” I had read the synopsis. Before I went, I had joked that “if I don’t need a xanax or a pinot noir afterward, then I haven’t gotten my money’s worth.”
Well, I did get my money’s worth after all. Equus was everything I had hoped for and not as disturbing as I’d feared.