'Equus' Gallops Back Into the West End

By: Feb. 27, 2007
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Peter Shaffer's 1973 play, "Equus", a thoroughly absorbing and gripping psychological drama, rears its head once more in the West End in Thea Sharrock's revival at the Gielgud theatre. And the play has lost none of its power and ability to challenge the mind and shock the senses. 

Shaffer was inspired by a harrowing real-life story of an apparently senseless and motiveless act of brutality and mutilation of horses carried out by a teenage boy. In his play, 17 year old Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses with a metal hoof-pick, is brought to a mental health clinic for treatment by psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart. As Dysart investigates and examines the boy, attempting to analyse and get to the root of the motivation for the crime, he begins to confront and re-assess his own personal and professional existence.   The play was originally staged by John Dexter at the Old Vic in 1973, with a cast headed by Alec McCowen and Peter Firth. A Broadway triumph followed, where the role of Martin Dysart was played in turn by Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins and Richard Burton, who reprised the role for the 1977 film.  

In this new production, the director gives us a polished, delicately poised production that succeeds in entertaining, unsettling and thrilling the emotions of the audience. The nudity of the cathartic denouement scene between Alan Strang and stable girl, Jill Mason, never seems gratuitous and every piece of the dramatic jigsaw is revealed with perfectly paced precision. John Napier's set consists of a minimalist group of movable blocks, with a row of stable doors covering the rear of the stage, inhabited at  appropriate moments by glistening steel frames of horses' heads. Combined with David Hersey's atmospheric lighting, the effect is quite stunning. And the vision of an emotionally charged Alan Strang sitting high on the shoulders of a human horse with a bright steel head, becoming as one with the animal he worships, is one of the most powerful Act One closings an audience is ever likely to see.  

The strong cast of Jenny Agutter, Will Kemp, Joanna Christie, Jonathan Cullen (I), Colin Haigh, Karen Meagher, Gabrielle Reidy, Greig Cooke, Joel Corpuz, Temujin Gill and Jami Quarrell all provide solid support for the two leads. As Martin Dysart, Richard Griffiths follows his memorable performance in "The History Boys" with yet another memorable performance. He strikes up a perfect rapport with the audience from the outset, finding all the subtle nuances in the humour that lies beneath his lines as well as tearing at the heart and mind of his character in a way that is both powerful and endearing. As Alan Strang, Daniel Radcliffe is a total revelation. Casting off his Harry Potter magician's hat, he gives a performance of amazing maturity. At the right times boyishly cute and winsome, he is also convincingly troubled, withdrawn and disturbed, bursting into fury in a way that is for one special moment quite heart-breaking.  

Peter Shaffer's text is powerful and thought provoking as well as deftly touching, rich in imagery and sub-text, always seeming to find the perfectly apposite words to suit the character and challenge the listener. As for an apposite word to describe Thea Sharrock's revisiting of Shaffer's play - "Unmissable!"