About one thing there was never a scintilla of doubt. Putting “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe on stage as a seriously disturbed adolescent who, naked and terrified, blinds horses, was always going to be a box-office bonanza. The first big question arising from that move was, can Radcliffe cut it as an actor off-screen? The answer is “almost, but not quite.” The same applies to the overall business of remounting Peter Shaffer’s 1970s sensation, “Equus.”
As Sidney Lumet’s earnest movie version revealed, take the original staging away from the powerfully theatrical psychological chiller and the drama disappears. It was wise, therefore, that for the first major new staging since the 1973 National Theater original, which transferred to Broadway with starry casts for more than 1,200 perfs, director Thea Sharrock has re-hired John Napier, designer of the iconic first production.
The published script is less a text than a blueprint. The original non-naturalistic presentation was as crucial to the play as the dialogue and its ideas. Although Napier has made a few changes, the style and tone remain almost identical.
Once again, the black neutral set echoes what the lead character, psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths), refers to as “the black cave of the psyche.” The horses are back, with actors strapped onto raised metal hooves, their chestnut brown, figure-hugging costumes topped off eerily by giant, elongated, skeletal metal masks outlining horse’s heads. They stand in David Hersey’s strangely uneven light against a curved back wall above which sit two jury-like rows of audience members.
The audience section’s visible, observing presence emphasizes the courtroom nature of what is essentially a thriller about a crime of passion. How, asks the play, did an ordinary lad of 17 from a “normal” family come to blind six horses? And, more importantly, why and what does that mean?
The secret to making a thriller work is the successful withholding of the puzzle’s answer. One of the chief reasons for the play’s success is its tight structure, the skill with which Shaffer teases auds, eking out the boy’s secret until the climactic revelation.
Laid on to that is the philosophy, much of it influenced by the likes of Sixties and Seventies psychiatric guru R.D. Laing. The overworked psychiatrist unwillingly takes on a new patient, Alan Strang (Radcliffe), whose raw passion brings Dysart to profound realizations about his dessicated private life and shattering doubt about the efficacy of his entire professional life. What price will the boy pay for being cured of his distorting passion? If Dysart’s barren marriage represents “normal life,” what right does he have to give that to a young man?
Radcliffe is strong on intensity. He can hold a malevolent stare as might be expected from someone whose acting career has been built on camera. What he lacks is a grounded voice to give the role color and depth. The more emotional his character becomes, the more strained and inexpressive the sound. He can switch instantly between belligerence and silent intensity, from sullenness to excitement. But as Dysart remarks in his opening speech: “extremity is the point” and that’s precisely what Radcliffe lacks.
Alan zealously makes a religion out of his worship of horses. Valiant though Radcliffe undoubtedly is, he cannot fully convey the boy’s deep-seated terror that his dangerous secret feelings might be exposed. At the other end of the scale, nor can he release himself to complete sexual and religious ecstasy. He convinces auds he has achieved orgasm at the end of the first act, but fails to convey the exultancy of the feeling. What should feel thrillingly dangerous and shocking is merely impressive.
The role of Dysart, too, is almost scuppered by the casting. Griffiths’ throwaway ease wittily underlines Dysart’s self-disgust. But Dysart never seems either brought down by or eaten away by his life. Griffiths’ specialty — a fast-thinking ability to see through and dismiss laziness or sentimentality — plays against the role. His brusque solidity militates against being physically able to express degrees of pain.
None of the other roles offer any complexity. The remaining characters — repressive father, overly religious mother — are merely there to build up the picture, which Shaffer does with dated neatness.
Sharrock either ignores or downplays the drama’s constant metaphors for homosexuality. The play’s critics have long argued this is a “closet drama” about secret longings vs. supposed normality. The scale of Griffiths’ physical presence weighs against a homorerotic interpretation of the relationship between the older man and the boy. Griffiths is avuncular, an impression furthered by association with his role as Uncle Vernon to Radcliffe’s Harry Potter.
Although doubts surface as soon as the play is over, Shaffer’s theatricality keeps auds tied in, not least because by now the world knows there’s a nude scene coming. That, combined with suitably stellar casting would be enough to send the production across the Atlantic (Broadway transfer has been rumored for the fall). What this fitful staging cannot do is overturn the naysayers. Philosophically speaking, there’s considerably less to “Equus” than meets the eye.