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January 21st, 2009

Equus

The first time I saw Equus was in 1974, when the National Theatre brought it to New York. Mostly what I remember from that production was the horses' heads and Alan Strang's nudity. Later, I taught the play to my first-ever class--a survey of Western Drama from the Greeks to the Modern period. "Euripides to Equus," as I called it, too young and focussed on the more antique end of the spectrum to realize that Euripides, in a sense, was the secret of understanding Equus. Which I ended up hating, as I ended up hating almost everything I taught that semester. But that's another story.

Anyway, I went to the new production, with Harry Po--, er Daniel Radcliffe as Alan Strang and Richard Griffiths as Martin Dysart and Captain Jane--, er Kate Mulgrew as Hesther Saloman, with fairly low expectations. Just another pop-psyche isn't madness creative fest, with Harry Potter naked to make it palatable.

It was a lot better than that.

First of all, both Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe can act. No surprise from Griffiths, who made something approaching a tragic hero of the teacher in The History Boys. But, frankly, a considerable surprise from Radcliffe, whose first stage performance this is. Good screen actors are not always, or even often, good stage actors, but Radcliffe's concentration and focus are ferocious and his reading of the role subtle. You can really see the pain Alan is in, even in his most ecstatic moments. So that when Dysart is wittering on about passion and creativity and how healing Alan's psychosis will take these things away from him, he's not talking about the real boy at all, but his own middle-aged disappointments and neuroses. Which makes the whole play a lot more interesting--and a lot less dated--than it could be.

The staging was great. I loved the horses. I loved the fact that the stage was set up to suggest a Greek temple. I loved the fact that everything was done with lights and moving four large boxes around to become beds and sofas and the hay on which Alan could not, finally, tumble the willing girl. I still don't think it's a great play, and I still think it romanticises madness in slightly icksome ways, but it has some nice writing. And in the hands of the right actors, like Griffiths and Radcliffe, it can make you think about the need for worship, for the ineffable, for gods, in ways you haven't before.

Which is what art is for, right?

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