nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 3, 2008
I came to this new Broadway production of Equus having never seen the play before (nor the film starring Richard Burton). So its very particular surprises were all brand new to me, which is perhaps the only way to fully appreciate it. Because Equus is, above all else, a mystery story—a highly theatricalized one, to be sure; and one of compelling thematic depth.
The mystery revolves around a young man named Alan Strang, a 17-year-old boy living in a provincial area of southern England. Alan blinded all six horses in the stable where he works, with a metal spike; the question in Equus is not whodunit but why. Hesther Saloman, the judge before whom Alan stood when being tried for this sensational crime, has remanded him not to jail but to a psychiatric hospital, where her friend Dr. Martin Dysart will attempt to uncover the cause of Alan's actions.
And so Dysart probes Alan's damaged psyche, utilizing a variety of what he brazenly calls the tricks of his trade to first get through to the boy—who initially refuses to talk, answering questions only by singing TV commercial jingles—and then to uncover the truth of what led him to carry out the bizarre and outrageous mutilation of the animals he loved.
The brilliance of Peter Shaffer's playwriting here is that Dysart, not Alan, is the protagonist of Equus. As the barriers are torn down within Alan's mind to reveal the "solution," we are engaged not only with discovering what it is but with the destruction that the process is wreaking on both doctor and patient. When Dysart first encounters Alan, he is a deeply disappointed man, trapped in a loveless marriage and a job that no longer satisfies him, living only for the few weeks a year when he can vacation in Greece, visiting ruins and rummaging through ancient art objects that provide his only fascination. As Alan's treatment progresses, and as Dysart explores and meditates on it before our eyes (for the entire play is structured as a kind of confessional between him and us), he arrives at some very disturbing conclusions about the value of what he is doing. Viewed in the context of Shaffer's later plays (Amadeus, even Lettice and Lovage), it's clear that the struggle between conformity and eccentricity—between the routines of convention and the thrilling but dangerous insights of raw genius—are at the heart of Equus. The conclusion of the piece, which comes stunningly quick on the heels of the climactic unraveling of the mystery, is devastating and untethering.
Thea Sharrock's production derives its power from its sense of theatrical possibility. On John Napier's deceptively stark set, scenes from Alan's past are replayed for us in a style that always combines naturalism with unabashed theatre magic. The horses at the stable where Alan works are played by actors wearing metal masks (representing the horse's heads) and oversized metal platform shoes that allow them to tower over the human characters; their movements (choreographed by Fin Walker) are stylized approximations of the singular elegance of a trot, canter or gallop. Napier, with his collaborators David Hersey (lighting) and Gregory Clarke (sound), creates an astonishing world of heightened imagination that mirrors the twisted feats of invention that Alan himself achieves in the story. The realization of the play's climax—the re-creation of Alan's crime—is one of the most authentically horrifying moments I've ever seen on stage.
The two great performances in this play are, perhaps inevitably, Daniel Radcliffe's as Alan and Lorenzo Pisoni's as Nugget, Alan's favored horse. Both achieve the mythic quality that their story and its context require. Excellent supporting work is delivered by Collin Baja, Tyrone A. Jackson, Spencer Liff, Adesola Oasakalumi, and Marc Spaulding, who portray the other, unnamed horses with grace and potency.
The characters outside of Alan's world are more inconsistently rendered, however. Richard Griffiths gets Dysart's detachment exactly right, but there's never a moment when he pulls away from the aloofness to show us the passion that must have once lived inside this man—and perhaps may live there again—and I missed that. T. Ryder Smith has a terrific scene in the second act that lets us right into his character, Alan's strict and repressive father; but Carolyn McCormick seems at sea as Alan's religious fanatic of a mother. Anna Camp is fine as Jill, the young woman who works at the stables who is something of a catalyst for the pivotal events of the story. I particularly admired Kate Mulgrew's highly theatrical turn as Hesther; she, alone among the "normal" people in the story, matches Radcliffe's intensity note for note.
A word about the much-ballyhooed nudity in the show: both Radcliffe and Camp appear fully naked for an extensive period in Act Two, mostly in dim light and almost always positioned so that a kind of modesty is maintained. But what follows these moments is potentially pretty upsetting; a certain level of maturity really is required to appreciate and process this play.
But for those equipped in mind and heart to take it in, this really is a remarkable piece of theatre. I'm not sure how well it would wear on a repeat viewing, but I am very glad to have had the chance to experience this first-rate production of a gripping, absorbing drama.