Stunt casting in theater can do a disservice to playwrights, with famous faces often monopolizing attention while devaluing the merits of the work itself. But in his impressive debut in a major stage role, as the disturbed adolescent in “Equus,” Daniel Radcliffe significantly helps overcome the fact that Peter Shaffer’s 1975 Tony winner doesn’t entirely hold up. The play is an astute career move for the “Harry Potter” frontman as he confidently navigates the transition from child stardom to adult roles — and Radcliffe’s performance provides “Equus” with a raw emotional nerve center that renders secondary any concerns about its wonky and over-explanatory psychology.
Premiered at the National Theater in London in 1973 and transferred to Broadway the following year for a celebrated three-year run, “Equus” has always been less notable as a psychological investigation than as a vehicle for two mesmerizing lead performances backed by striking stagecraft. Taking her cue from John Dexter’s stark original staging and retaining the crucial collaboration of that production’s designer, John Napier, director Thea Sharrock correctly understands the play’s chief asset is its blazing theatricality.
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Sharrock leans a little too forcefully on the atmospherics at times, cranking up the smoke machine and ominous ambient music with a heavy hand. But the production is visually dazzling, making assured use of David Hersey’s penetrating lighting and Napier’s stylized set, with its imposing coliseum of stable doors surrounding a revolving central platform with four movable rectangular blocks. Leaning forward to look down from above, the two elevated rows of onstage audience members heighten the drama’s sense of claustrophobic, inescapable scrutiny.
Constructed by Shaffer around sketchy information regarding a horrific crime that took place in regional England, the mystery thriller is basically a series of taut encounters between the perpetrator, Alan Strang (Radcliffe), a stable boy who inexplicably blinded six horses with a metal spike, and Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths), the psychiatrist assigned by the state to discover his reasons. As Dysart coaxes his recalcitrant subject, via hypnosis and abreaction, to revisit the roots of his disturbance and the harrowing events of the crime, the shrink comes to regard the boy’s violent passion with something approaching envy.
With his effortless naturalism and mental agility, balancing clinical detachment, curiosity and concern, Griffiths makes Dysart’s self-discovery as painful and unsettling as Alan’s. Stuck in a lifeless, childless marriage of “antiseptic proficiency” and sustained only by his fascination with Greek mythology, Dysart is confronted during the course of his inquiry by his hunger to be (or be with) someone instinctive, passionate, capable of being transported by worship.
Alan’s rapturous psychosexual deification of the animal that has captured his imagination since childhood forces Dysart to acknowledge the emptiness of his own sad suburban life. As he steers the boy toward recovery, he begins to wonder, in the monologues woven throughout the play, if by restoring Alan to “a normal life” he’s not merely quenching his spirit.
Thanks in large part to the integrity of Griffiths’ performance, this dubious consideration remains affecting. It’s in the particulars of Alan’s case and Dysart’s treatment of him that things get shaky.
Shaffer’s text is grounded deep in the 1960s-’70s psychology of R.D. Laing, with its notions about the transformative aspects of mental illness, adding a heavy dollop of Freud and a hint of Marxist philosophy concerning the denial of individual freedom. But given that most audiences, three decades on, are better-versed in pop psychology and mental disorders, all this comes across as elementary, outmoded or even professionally inept.
The play has frequently been interpreted as a metaphor for the homosexual repression of Alan, Dysart or both. That suggestion becomes bluntly manifest here the moment strapping Lorenzo Pisoni rides on as the young horseman that transfixed the 6-year-old Alan in an indelible episode on a beach. While the boy’s fixation is with the animal — from its sweaty flanks to the cream dripping from its chained mouth (seriously) — the presentation of the horseman as a Ralph Lauren gay porn fantasy, with muscles packed into skintight jodhpurs and polo shirt, will have even the most amateur shrinks muttering to themselves about transference of desire.
Wearing the arresting raised metal hooves and steel-cage equine headgear of the six actor-dancers that provide the production’s stunning horse imagery, Pisoni also plays Nugget, the chief object of Alan’s obsession at the stable where he works. The scenes of quasi-religious ecstasy in which Alan is hoisted up on horseback for the first time, the intensely sexual release of his furtive naked night rides and, finally, the terrified raptus that follows his abortive date with stable co-worker Jill (Anna Camp) all retain the power to shock and disturb as “Equus” did in the ’70s.
But Dysart’s failure to approach, even obliquely, the likely cause of Alan’s torment while forcing him to relive the trauma now makes the drama seem somewhat specious. And the characters who contribute to shape the boy’s psychosis and push him over the edge — stern, judgmental father (T. Ryder Smith); suffocating religious mother (Carolyn McCormack); flirtatious would-be girlfriend (Camp) — are all too thinly sketched to provide texture.
Likewise the well-meaning magistrate who delivers Alan to Dysart is a role that serves merely to punctuate the shrink’s monologues, though it’s given strangely overwrought handling by Kate Mulgrew, bringing her roundest BBC vowels.
Shaffer’s main accomplishment is his skill at sustaining the mystery despite the play’s psychological transparency. But it’s a credit in particular to Radcliffe’s moving work — and to his nuanced chemistry with Griffiths — that Alan’s struggle constitutes a cogent drama, even while much of the surrounding reasoning is unsound. His Alan is antagonistic and not easily intimidated yet desperately vulnerable and alone, contradictions deftly played against Griffiths’ seeming nonchalance and increasingly troubled self-reflection.
London critics complained during the revival’s West End run that Radcliffe lacked vocal control, but time in the role and an extra year-and-a-half of maturity may have helped. His delivery here is as confident and compelling as his febrile physicality — whether fully clothed and wary or naked and defenseless.