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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud

By Clive Hirschhorn

  Daniel Radcliffe/Photo: Alastair Muir

On July 26th, 1973, the West End was rocked by an event measuring a nine on the theatrical Richter scale; the opening of Peter Shaffer's Equus at the National Theatre.

I was fortunate enough to have been at that memorable first night, and was winded by the experience. It was like being kicked in the gut by the horse that gives the play its title.

I remember walking across Waterloo Bridge with my companion of the evening in total silence. We had both been so shattered by the play and John Dexter's superb production of it, neither of us could utter a word as we made our way to Joe Allen's restaurant.

Nearly 34 years later Equus retains the hallmark of Shaffer's best work - its in-your-face theatricality. What has evaporated, though, is its power to shock.

For this is a play that yields all its secrets in a single viewing. Returning to it, even three decades later, is rather like re-reading an Agatha Christie thriller. There are no surprises.

Still, audiences new to the play, will, I'm sure, have a powerful evening in the theatre. They may, however, find themselves questioning the dubious message at its heart: that psychiatrists treating disturbed youngsters are in danger of curing them by removing their soul, their passion and the life force that has made them who they are. In a nutshell, Equus is the story of Alan Strang, a horse-worshipping 17 year-old who, one evening, blinds six horses with a metal spike. A psychiatrist called Martin Dysart, in whose care Alan has been placed, determines to discover what led the teenager to commit such a brutal act, and to expunge the traumatic incident from his tortured young mind.

He does so, in the process of which he enviously contrasts the boy's driving passion for all things equine with his own sterile existence. The more he delves into the strange, but very real, highly-charged world Alan has created for himself, the more he loathes his own tepid existence. Where Alan has bonded sexually and spiritually with Nugget, his favourite horse, Dysart has to endure a childless, loveless marriage.

And where Alan rides naked in the night ecstatically breathing in the sweet scent of Nugget's mane, all Dysart can do is indulge his love of ancient Greece by reading books and taking the occasional package tour to the Peloponnese - where his meals are paid for with vouchers.

Though the play never convinces that Dysart's eventual unlocking of the secrets that led to the terrible blinding of the horses was sufficient to effect a "cure", it offers audiences the belief that Alan's return to "normalcy" has removed the substance of his life - leaving behind a mere shadow of his former self.

Of course, the big question where this revival is concerned is whether Daniel Radcliffe better known as Harry Potter, is up to the challenge of a role originally created by the charismatic Peter Firth. And the answer is yes. It's a perfectly competent, admirably, committed performance, touching in its gaucheness, but lacking that sense of the extraordinary to which Dysart so painfully responds.

Receiving top-billing, however, is Richard Griffiths who, it has to be said, is miscast. He doesn't let the evening down, but his massive girth, cuddly presence and laid-back approach is at variance with the cold, tortured intensity the part demands. Your heart should bleed just as much for him as for young Strang, and it doesn't. Jenny Agutter hasn't much to do (and doesn't do much) as the judge who introduces Alan to Dysart, and Joanna Christie is fine as as the young girl who works in the stables with Alan and offers her body to him.

All six of the actors playing the horses in John Napier's wonderfully theatrical wrought-iron horse-masks<


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