Will Radcliffe casting overshadow play?

LONDON — A revival of a 1973 psychological drama about a boy who blinds six horses might seem unlikely to cause a box office stampede. But that thinking doesn’t allow for the “Harry Potter” factor.

Prior to its first preview, London’s new production of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” already had taken an eye-widening £1.6 million ($3.1 million). Why? Because the play marks the stage debut of Daniel Radcliffe, better known as the title character in Warner Bros.’ wizard franchise. And for about 10 minutes of the play, he’s naked.

Publicity photographs of 17-year-old Radcliffe nude in a tastefully cropped pose next to a white horse, another of him in an intimate embrace with actress Joanna Christie and a solo image shot from behind have ricocheted around the world.

Unsurprisingly, Web sites and newspapers have seized upon the images, inciting prurient and furious debate over everything from the possibility that the casting will threaten the squeaky clean “Harry Potter” brand — onscreen, the boy wizard is about to have his first kiss — to whether or not Radcliffe’s parents should have let their son appear in this manner.

The big question now is whether all the hype will overshadow the play. How many people can be lured to the theater for the work itself, and how many people are just in it for the voyeurism?

Auds flocked to Broadway last season to catch a glimpse of Julia Roberts in her first Rialto role. The capacity crowds arguably spoke more to the thesp’s star wattage than to critics’ reception of the revival of Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain.”

Although the show doesn’t open until Feb. 27, at least one newspaper, the U.K.’s conservative Daily Mail, broke the review embargo to report breathlessly on the first preview of arguably the world’s most famous teenager shedding his clothes.

The show is produced by David Pugh, whose past trans-Atlantic productions include “Art” and “The Play What I Wrote.” He concedes he has opened himself up to the charge of titillation but is staunchly unrepentant.

“I’ve actually done it to kill off the charge of voyeurism,” Pugh argues. “If the production were starring an unknown, I would not have done those photos. But after the casting was announced, I realized I had to show that Daniel was a young man, not the 12- or 13-year-old boy whose image was appearing on all the Web sites causing all that unpleasant speculation.”

Even before the photographs, the production was notable for the striking black-and-white imagery of its marketing. “Anthony Pye-Jeary of (ad agency) Dewynters rang me and said, ‘We’ve done the poster and we’re only going to show you one image,” Pugh recounts. “It’s the best thing we’ve done in 20 years. If you don’t like it, go to another agency.”

The producer was instantly persuaded. The result is that Shaftesbury Avenue, home to four West End theaters, is now dominated by a giant, 50-foot poster of the stark image in front of the Gielgud. Designed by Bob King, it is an arresting depiction of a man’s torso (not Radcliffe’s) morphing down into the face of a horse, vividly expressing the danger of the play’s central sexual tension.

Pugh is convinced that the wholly expected brouhaha surrounding Radcliffe will not swamp the play itself. Shaffer clearly agrees, having refused to grant rights for a major revival since the long-running premiere production, which played over 1,200 performances on Broadway alone. One of the playwright’s sticking points has been the casting of the emotionally disturbed boy.

Radcliffe had come to Pugh’s attention as one of the celebrity guests on “The Play What I Wrote.” “He had incredible presence and was very professional,” he says. “I’d been in discussion with Peter Shaffer for six years, and he suggested a reading.” Eighteen months ago, Radcliffe’s reading at the Old Vic (where the play premiered) was such a success that the project was greenlit.

At that point, Kenneth Branagh was attached, initially to play the other leading role of the psychiatrist, Dysart, then to direct the play. Differences between Branagh and Shaffer over how to stage a 1970s play in the present led Pugh to move on.

Branagh’s replacement was 30-year-old Thea Sharrock, who was too young to have seen the original. This allows her, as she says, “to see it as a new play.” Aware that it’s in danger of appearing dated, she has persuaded Shaffer to do rewrites. “There are a few chunks that have changed,” she explains, “and a lot of tweaks. I needed to remove a few barriers for contemporary audiences.”

Sharrock, a former staff director on “Art,” staged Pugh’s production of “Heroes.” The latter starred Richard Griffiths, who not only had gone on to collect a string of awards for his role in “The History Boys,” but also played Harry Potter’s selfish Uncle Vernon. He is now playing Dysart.

Sharrock, too, is confident the “Harry Potter” connection will not overwhelm the play. “It was my choice,” she insists. “When I was approached to direct it, I said if Daniel doesn’t do it for me, we should look elsewhere. But I’ve had a very positive response from him from our first meeting. I’d only be worried about all that if I didn’t think he could do it.”

 “Of course, there are hoards of people at the stage door trying to get in, which makes things difficult,” Sharrock continues. “We have to be careful with security. And there are some people coming just to see Harry Potter naked onstage and that’s not useful. I just hope they realize that not only is the play not about nakedness, but that he really can act.”

Whatever the strength of his stage chops, Radcliffe’s West End sojourn is strictly limited. He’s contracted for 16 weeks, after which it’s back to Hogwarts to shoot the sixth Potter film, due in 2008.

Pugh is determined “Equus” should extend beyond that point and there already has been press talk of a Broadway transfer even before the reviews are in. Does he have any further headline-grabbing casting coups up his sleeve? “Superstition stops me even thinking about that until after opening night.”

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