Equus debuted in 1973 at the National Theater in London. Now, the National Theater is one of my favorite places in the entire world, and I can say with complete confidence that the best theater in the world comes out of its productions and off of its stages. Equus is no exception. The production is so clearly British and so flawlessly crafted... It didn't feel like Broadway, it felt like London. I was thrilled.
Radcliffe stars opposite Richard Griffiths, who I originally saw in History Boys at the NT in London. No one else should have this role, and if I ever see a psychiatrist I kind of want it to be Griffiths, or more appropriately, his character Dr. Martin Dysart. He was believable in his empathy and discretion; successful in his approach. Griffiths opened and closed the play with startling monologues that drew the audience in with his first breath and kept us there, swirling and hovering like the cigarette smoke above him.
Radcliffe plays Alan Strang, an adolescent boy who, as we learn before he even steps onto the stage, committed a violent and disturbing crime against six horses. Its a classic set-up-- we learn the outcome before we hear the story. But they get us there, brick by brick, and in the end the violence and the disturbing nature of it makes so much sense that Dysart actually convinces us that Strang may in fact have it right. And all of us should be so lucky. It was so beautiful, I cried.
One line struck me in particular. It was said by Strang's mother, who defends herself, her husband, and her son. Alan is Alan, she said. He was born Alan and nothing I can do to change him. I look at everything I've done from his birth until now and nothing points to this. Alan will always be Alan, that's who he is. It was so striking to me, and something I've thought about several times since: we are convinced by parentage, so trusting in guidance. But there is something to be said for the person that is our soul. Religion, parenting styles, tone, and environment--those are our strongholds. And yes, guidance is essential but Alan is Alan and there is nothing she could do about it.
The set consists of a few blocks that the cast rearranges and shifts to denote space in a rounded stable with six tall doors and six tall horses inside. The horses come alive in the skin of six men whose stances, twitches, and body language are undeniably horse. They wear cage-like masks and didn't have hindquarters, which is an important detail to dissect from the storyline. (I would again like to credit the National Theater for nailing this costume design.) The costumes referenced the photo above Alan's bed--a horse facing directly toward him. Both eyes.
This is so important in order to understand Alan's real interest and passion... its the soul of the horse, the all-encompassing Equus that he fell for, not his creature. And its the head facing directly at us that we see as Alan's perspective. The horse as a physical being was not Alan's interest. The hindquarters makes a horse more real to us, but not to someone focusing on who the horse is at its core. Plus, this takes away some of those sodomy fears, if you were concerned.
And, yes, I know what you're wondering. Did I see Harry Potter naked? Yes, I did. Second row center. But it wasn't what you would think. He was so incredibly convincing that I just wanted to wrap him in a blanket and cover his nakedness. The nudity makes sense in its place and is essential for the us to really understand the intense, very specific pain in this young, confused, passionate boy. But, yes. Naked as a jaybird.
The script is an absolute feat in terms of depth and thoughtful substance. And its execution matches this glory inch for inch. This represents the best theater I've seen in New York and reminded me what a script can become with proper care and detail. As I've said, I think about it often. Its a play about passion... real passion and its sometimes damaging remains.
All right! Griffiths says in final surrender, The normal is the good smile in a child's eyes. There's also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills, like a god. It is the ordinary made beautiful, it is also the average made lethal. Normal is the indispensable murderous god of health and I am his priest.