It’s good to have Peter Shaffer back on Broadway with Equus. Whatever the flaws of the watershed 1973 psychodrama that became one of his biggest international successes, Mr. Shaffer reminds us of the lifeblood that’s being drained from the theater: the power of articulate ideas and ritual.
Like all his major plays—The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Amadeus (1979)—the confrontation between two male protagonists in a war between ecstatic instinct and colder reason is found at the center of Equus. In Lettice and Lovage, his delightful 1987 stately home comedy written for Maggie Smith, he reversed his own convention and had two women fight for ascendancy, one of them a nutty fantasist, the other a conformist mediocrity. The underlying conflicts are ultimately between life and death, and Mr. Shaffer’s Dionysian-Apollonian themes are constant.
And then there’s his preoccupation with revelation and God. (But we’ll come to Him later.)
YOU MAY HAVE heard that the Equus revival stars Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter global fame) as the 17-year-old stable boy, Alan Strang, who commits a horrible crime by blinding six horses with a metal spike. The child psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by the estimable Richard Griffiths) sets out to unravel the savage mystery of the crime in a series of meetings with the boy, who’s under his hospital care.
Mr. Radcliffe—who made his remarkable stage debut in the West End run of Equus—is, firstly, a stage natural. He’s arguably a shade too careful in a role that demands a consistent note of animal wildness—but he reveals a powerful emotional honesty and appeal. Unself-conscious in the later naked scenes with Anna Camp as Jill, he conveys pagan ecstasy in the pivotal Act I closing scene in which the boy relives the homoerotic fantasy of becoming one with the revered horse he idolizes as his “Godslave, Faithful and True.”
Mr. Radcliffe crucially holds his own with Mr. Griffiths, the veteran British actor who won a Tony for his inspirationally eccentric schoolmaster in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. (He’s also Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon; the Harry Potter films are a financial godsend for British stage actors in the same way Law and Order is for Americans.) In contrast to the glamorous Richard Burton—who played Dysart in the film version and briefly on Broadway—or such previous, starry Dysarts as Anthony Hopkins, the disheveled Mr. Griffith’s troubled psychiatrist possesses the right kind of anonymous ordinariness in everything except his physical bulk.
The unusual surname Dysart suggests a play on words—“art dies,” or “desert.” Clinical Dysart is trapped in a loveless marriage and an existence as sterile as his functional hospital room. The “normal” doctor is emotionally repressed in his unfulfilled life, whereas his disturbed patient appears to have been liberated by an insane act.
“Passion,” Dysart declares, “can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”
Here’s his confession: “The boy has created out of his drab existence a passion more ferocious than any I have known in any second of my life. And let me tell you something—I envy it.”
Mr. Shaffer sets up the Dysart-Strang confrontation schematically. (They’re psychic opposites, or two sides of the same conflicted person.) The playwright is also in danger of romanticizing madness—a fashion in 1960s and ’70s England, when the controversial theories of the Scotsman R. D. Laing questioned traditional psychiatry and held that psychotic episodes could be transformative and even enlightening.
But the central scenes and power games between Dysart and the boy rise above the merely reductive to fascinate us on a more theatrical level. Mr. Shaffer didn’t intend to write a psychology textbook with Equus any more than Amadeus is meant to be a documentary about Mozart. Equus is, in fact, based on a true story the dramatist heard from a friend—but he invented everything in the play, save for the crime itself.
The result is a psychosexual thriller amounting to a whydunit: Why did the boy blind the horses? Yet the drama takes flight on many different levels. We discover the patient’s background—the fanatically religious mother; the atheistic, disapproving father; the boy’s first sexual awakening by the sweat and feel of a horse; and his violent bouts of self-flagellation.
The startling opening image of the play is of the boy embracing the flanks of a mythic centaur—a man-horse in a silver equine mask. In such arresting ways, the unfolding drama, with its six actors uncannily conveying the physical reality of the blinded horses, is infused with the strange, the religious and the divine, like a passion play subverted by pagan rites.
The biblical allusions are plentiful: the archetypal horse as jealous godhead and sacrificial Christ figure—Equus, Jesus; or the Book of Job’s “Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?” Mr. Shaffer, the Jungian, suggests the universality of myths and the collective unconscious, while the unspoken subject in Equus, like Amadeus, is God or faith in the divinely irrational.
The focus of the play shifts to the unraveling of drably rational Dysart, whose professional agony stems from his certain knowledge that in curing Alan, he’ll neutralize a dark passion and destroy a soul. There’s the implication of a father-son relationship between the childless doctor and the boy, as well as the illicit appeal of the homoerotic. The play makes a plea for sexual freedom and choice versus stifling conformity and “cures.”
THE ORIGINAL EQUUS production was a miracle of imaginative staging by its British director, the late John Dexter (who became the director of productions for the Metropolitan Opera), and his brilliant designer, John Napier (who happily returns to design this revival). The minimalist scenic design—with spectators seated onstage as if overlooking a hospital theater, or a bullring—was apparently influenced by the radical experiments of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and his “Laboratory Theater.” A famously innovative production, the original Equus successfully merged the avant-garde with Mr. Shaffer’s more traditionally crafted play.
This Broadway revival, directed by Thea Sharrock, closely echoes Dexter’s staging, which accounts for the vividly stylized sense of ritual ceremony. But that’s implicit in Mr. Shaffer’s script. Ms. Sharrock overdoes the effects, however (the unnecessary fog machines and mysterioso Muzak), and I’m afraid she’s misdirected Kate Mulgrew, who overacts the supporting role of the magistrate with the zeal of a scene-stealing grande dame.
No matter. Psychiatric techniques and practice have changed in the past 35 years, as Mr. Shaffer points out in a gracious program note about his play. But in the theatrical essentials, his kind of theater hasn’t changed and will always be welcome.
Peter Shaffer believes in a theater of ideas and image in which both are transformed into purest emotion—emotion in search of the miraculous. Equus might have its purple patches—but what do we remember when the curtain has come down? It is in those transcendent scenes of stage magic, when we’re struck dumb like Dysart by a disturbed boy’s exultant contact with the ineffable, that Equus becomes unforgettable.
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.