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May 03, 2007

In the age of Al-Qaeda, Equus's denigration of the normal is past its sell-by date, argues David Womersley: Equus - Peter Shaffer

Posted by David Womersley

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

The star system sometimes works in unexpected ways, particularly when actors have recently appeared in particularly notable films or plays, the connotations of which they drag with them into their next job. In Thea Sharrock's production of Equus, this happens twice over, but with interesting results.

The part of the disturbed Alan Strang, the boy who has blinded a stable full of horses with a hoof-pick, is taken by Daniel Radcliffe (late of Harry Potter). The part of the psychiatrist who investigates his case, Martin Dysart, is taken by Richard Griffiths (late of The History Boys). What the past parts of both actors have in common is a protest against the oppressive drabness or utilitarian values of modern life. In the Harry Potter books and films, it is the Dursleys who are the butt of most of the jokes, and who perhaps are even more the villains of the series than Lord Voldemort himself. The world of magic has its dangerous side, of course, but the momentum it imparts to life makes it, even at its most terrifying, an exhilarating alternative to the banality and petty cruelty of Privet Drive.

In The History Boys, Griffiths's Hector refuses to teach in a way which denies that knowledge is a good in itself, and has no need to serve an economic or utilitarian imperative outside itself. So the recent past of both leading actors sees them united in creating roles which have implicitly taken aim at "normality".

It was therefore an interesting move on the part of Thea Sharrock to bring them together in Equus. Peter Shaffer's play was first performed in 1973, when it made waves chiefly because of a relatively brief and late incidence of on-stage nudity (this was once again a matter of prurient concern in 2007, because of the fact that Daniel Radcliffe would be shedding his clothes on stage). In retrospect, however, and seeing past that unimportant distraction, Equus now looks like a symptomatic expression of a particular historical moment. By 1973 the Second World War was becoming distant, an historical event of which the incipiently adult generation had no direct experience; the 1960s had passed without making good on their promise of personal and social liberation; domestic politics was drab and managerial, emptied of ideology - a world in which "Grocer" Heath, Wilson and Callaghan succeeded one another in a merry-go-round of mediocrity. The stock market had just crashed, and it must have seemed as if there were no alternative to gentle, steady, but inexorable decline. Normality must indeed have seemed oppressive, ubiquitous and unshakeable.

The denigration of normality and the corollary of that stance, the valorizing of what had previously been excluded, condescended to or reviled, was the subject of a series of celebrated books. The years before the première of Equus had seen the publication of Colin Wilson's The Outsider (1956), and his notion of "peak experiences"; of Michel Foucault's Histoire de la Folie (1961), translated into English as Madness and Civilization in 1965, and its thesis that, since the Middle Ages, the treatment of the insane, even when apparently humane, had in fact been - and was still - a form of control and incarceration; and finally of R. D. Laing's Knots (1970), with its notion that madness (in particular, schizophrenia) was the only sane response to the conditions of life, especially the "double-bind" of family life. Wilson, Foucault and Laing were all apostles and advocates of the value of what stood outside the carapace of normality, of what threatened that normality and what normality therefore named and denounced as its enemy and antagonist.

Equus is a belated dramatic expression of this onslaught against the normal. Alan Strang has been brought up in an emotionally-repressive household, in which a religiose mother is yoked unhelpfully with an atheistic father. The sexual side of the Strangs' marriage seems to have petered out long ago (we learn eventually that Mr Strang is a devotee of "continental" films). Alan's sexual and religious yearnings become accidentally focused on horses, and he obtains a job in a stables to facilitate this idiosyncratic form of worship. When a stable-girl attempts to seduce him one night in the stables, and Alan is unable to rise to the occasion, he blinds the horses in a frenzy of shame and frustration. This is teased out gradually by the psychiatrist Dysart, himself trapped in a sterile marriage, disenchanted with his profession, and also full of yearnings for a more authentic form of life, which he associates with the ancient culture of the Mediterranean. The play's final speeches are given to Dysart, in which he explains his sense that the psychiatric "cure" he will provide for Alan is nothing more than a violent imposition of normality, like bridling a horse.

How pampered, self-indulgent and, indeed, hypocritical all these preening foes of the Enlightenment now look, and how shabby their avidity to take the largest portion of its benefits they could grab by means of denouncing it in print. The glamour and interest of such posturing, in the early 1970s, must have been more evident than its downside. European culture periodically has these infatuations with the Dionysiac: we might think of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1890), or Mann's Death in Venice (1912). The dates of publication here are terribly suggestive. It seems that, in the wake of these Bacchic cravings, we are in short order given what we have solicited, and very terrible it proves to be. In Equus the implication seems to be that if the divine is denied, it assumes strange and twisted forms (but in the white village on a Greek island, in which Dysart wishes he lived, it had not done and would not now do).

But these solicitations of the irrational are always perilous. Who in 1973 would have predicted the situation in which we now find ourselves, where the mysterious, the irrational, the orgiastic and the violent are back with us, all together, and refuse to go away when, unsurprisingly, we find their presence inconvenient? I'm not sure that anybody today would be interested in writing plays which complained too bitterly about the unshakeableness of normality - the normality, that is, in which you are not kidnapped or blown up or beheaded when going about your normal, inoffensive, lawful business; that normality which, dreadfully, proves at the moment to be beyond the reach of so many.

Shaffer's mistake was perhaps to assume that the outré was the only source of amplitude in life. It was only ever a quick fix. Deeper, broader sources of satisfaction are available within normality than Shaffer is prepared to admit in Equus. So the play is a period piece. Its voice is still powerful; but in 2007, in London, in this impressive production, it speaks most powerfully about the inadequacy of the meretricious vision to which it lends its support.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read Prof. David Wootton's take on Equus, see: Equus is a play that reminds us that on the stage absolutely anything is possible - including the straightforwardly impossible.

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The only effect on myself of the recent Equus is that pictures of nuddy-boy standing in front of a horse only put me off going to see any more Harry Potter films.

However, people of a certain class of do seem to boost their intellectual street-cred by approving of such stuff. I recently read a blog decrying studies of D.H.Lawrence as an “indefensible byway”, and referring to that author as a Freud-obsessed fraud. Would Peter Shaffer come under the same category?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 7, 2007 07:21 PM
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