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March 15, 2007

Equus is a play that reminds us that on the stage absolutely anything is possible - including the straightforwardly impossible: Equus - Peter Shaffer

Posted by David Wootton

Peter Shaffer's Equus
directed by Thea Sharrock
Gielgud Theatre, London
27th February - 9th June 2007

A young and lively audience had turned out to see the Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe. The night I went (7th March 2007) Richard Griffiths, his co-star, was sick, but Colin Haigh had more or less learnt his lines - after a dreadful beginning when he was thrown completely off his stride by a mobile phone going off during his first speech.

This is a play about madness, sexual obsession, psychiatry, and responsibility -

they fuck you up, your mum and dad,
they may not mean to but they do,
said Larkin, which is precisely to pose the puzzle of responsibility.

Equus contains a scene of full frontal adult nudity which is perfectly sweet and innocent - pretty much, I would think, what fans of Daniel Radcliffe would hope for. And it has a sad and miserable moral: doctors can fix you up, they can cure you of inappropriate sexual desires, but only at the expense of killing off all passion.

The moral is made out for us by Martin Dysart (usually Richard Griffiths - the night I went, Colin Haigh), the depressed psychiatrist who lives in a sexless marriage, dreaming of Dionysius. He sees in his patient, Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe), everything he cannot be, and in himself everything he is doomed to become. It is a play about an adolescent crisis - the crisis of a boy who fails to make the transition to normal sexuality - and a midlife crisis - the crisis of a man who is losing faith in his work just as he is becoming expert at it. It is a sad and sober play. It is also very much a sixties play: full frontal nudity is fine, but homosexuality is a subtext that can never be brought into the open; psychiatry is a noble profession, but at the same time psychiatrists are there only to help people adapt to a deadening, suburban reality. It is in danger of being dated, but never quite turns into a museum piece.

In this production, the night I saw it, Dysart and Strang were performed little more than competently - when Richard Griffiths is on stage, and everyone is confident that they know what to do, the standard is probably much higher. But when I saw it the show had two stars. One was the set, which was simple, flexible, monochrome, and a superb canvas on which to cast light and shadow; and the other was the horses. The set and horse costumes are by John Napier, the lighting by David Hersey, the movement by Fin Walker, and these three have made this an astonishing, remarkable and moving production.

Strang believes horses are gods, and he both loves and hates them, makes love to them and inflicts terrible injuries on them. The play depends on the coming together in the confined space of the stage of religion, sex, and pain, and at the same time this needs to feel like a real encounter with horses. The horses have to be sketched, stylised, hinted at, and at the same time they have to appear real, convincing, physical. This seems an impossible task, but here it is done brilliantly.

So, even on a bad night, this is absolutely worth seeing. I don't know what it was like in the original production (though I can sort of imagine as I saw Dexter's production of Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun) but this is certainly a production worthy of the play, and the play itself is certainly a remarkable piece of theatre: from moment to moment it shifts from domestic drama to ritualised religious performance, from kitchen sink to Greek tragedy, from realism to the representation of fantasy and illusion, from humdrum sanity to deluded madness. Actually I liked the horses best - there's something magical and marvellous about them. The sadness, the sobriety, the sense of life's pathetic compromises and inevitable defeats, well there's no shortage of that; it's the magic that's in short supply.

"This be the verse" is the title of Larkin's poem, and the point is that there's no shortage of people being fucked up, but a real shortage of good verse. "This is theatre", Shaffer could equally well say - and it is the horses that make all the difference. Equus is a play that reminds us that on the stage absolutely anything is possible - including the straightforwardly impossible.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

To read Prof. David Womersley's take on Equus, see: In the age of Al-Qaeda, Equus's denigration of the normal is past its sell-by date.

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For information, Richard Griiffiths is now back in the play. I think his presence makes a simply massive a difference to the whole production. Here's a review of his performance I found on-line from yesterday's (18 March) show.

Seems that Griffiths really lifts everyone else.

Posted by: Kay Wilkinson at March 18, 2007 07:45 AM
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