Wild horses couldn’t drag Andrew to Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
Being of a somewhat sensitive and nervous disposition, the idea of horses having their eyes poked out on stage proved a little too much for him. Phil tried to convince him that it’s “just a play” and “they’re only acting” but Andrew dug in his substantial heels and stayed curled up on his sofa watching the much less upsetting Snakes on a Plane, while Phil was left alone to witness the most talked-about snake on the London stage.
Well, he says alone, but he found himself trotting off to the Gielgud Theatre with a couple of fillies, Sharon and Margie, both self-confessed Harry Potter fans and stallion Paul. (Phil – Ok, that’s enough puns – Andrew) (Andrew – Get off the review, it’s my turn in the saddle – Phil).
Strang has blinded six horses and Dysart is persuaded by magistrate Hester Saloman (a gloriously wooden Jenny Agutter, no stranger to getting her kit of herself, including in the 1977 film of Equus) to take the boy’s case and find out what led to the atrocity.
Dysart’s passionless life is called into question as he finds out more about Strang’s behaviour. It’s a cryptic puzzle and Shaffer, as usual, misses no opportunities to throw in classical references to make it seem a very big intellectual exercise indeed. In fact it’s often tediously dry and full of psycho-babble, betraying its 70’s origins.
But Dysart’s puzzle is nothing to compare with The Big Question hanging over the whole evening. What is He like?
Well, Phil can report that he found the wonderful Richard Griffiths subtle, but slightly subdued, and struggling to control a cough (which he did contain rather well). He needen’t have worried about the latter, there was an elegant sufficiency of far less restrained coughing from the audience in the lengthy first act. Yes, Andrew there were an awful lot of words; you couldn’t have coped.
But the audience is here for one reason, Harry Potter himself. This has to be the most hyped appearance in the west end since Madonna wearied this Whinger in Up for Grabs. And although doing healthy business, unlike Madonna, he’s not selling out.
Radcliffe has to be applauded for taking on such a difficult role for a stage debut, especially with so much attention centred on his part. He’s perfectly fine, but not much more, has reasonable stage presence, remembers his lines, speaks clearly, and if there were furniture to bump into he’d surely acquit himself nicely there too. But convincing as an intense, repressed and guilty 17 year old? Well, Phil certainly believed he was 17.
He’s also lumbered with some tortuous lines as when he starts rabbiting on about chinkle-chankles and “Equus, son of Fleckwus son of Nequus, son of..” it sounds like the kind of quasi-mystical gobbledygook Radcliffe gets stuck with in the Harry Potter franchise. No wonder he seemed so at home.
And that scene? You have to wait until the last 15 minutes of the play for it – no leaving at the interval here (though some were spotted sneaking out). Phil’s wizened heart went out to poor Danny boy as 900 pairs of eyes concentrated on one small area of the stage. Even the wonderful John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar couldn’t create such a moment of hush as this.
As he dropped his drawers the focus of the play became very different indeed. However sophisticated and mature the audience believe themselves to be this was the big (or perhaps not) moment. All coughing stopped as one special cast member took the spotlight. The Whingers are far to polite to comment further (unlike others), but, as one couple cruelly remarked leaving the Gielgud, “You’d need binoculars for that one”.
It’s stunningly staged: original Equus designer John Napier has created a beautiful playing area, part classical amphitheatre, part stable. It’s the perfect space for the scenes to blend in and out of each other. There are a few large boxes which get shifted around rather awkwardly to represent different locations. Phil perked up considerably thinking he’d wandered into a stage production of telly favourite Deal or No Deal?
Some of the audience sit above the stage, but they don’t really distract. We particularly enjoyed the box office’s description: “on stage seating should be viewed as a theatrical experience”, as opposed to what? If you’re in the stalls are you meant to believe it’s all real? One can only assume they mean “expect a rotten view”.
And theatrical it is. The horses are portrayed convincingly by performers wearing sculptural steel wire masks. (Would-be Whinger Paul rather fancied one in his lounge). Their subtle movements convey the feeling they are horses. A dream-like world is created by David Heresey’s atmospheric lighting and there’s plenty of smoke to aid poor Richard Griffiths’ cough.
But Shaffer seems to be saying that Strang’s disturbed passionate world is preferable to the arid one of Dysart. Dysart envies Strang’s passions. Normal is dull and boring, perhaps. We are controlled and nannied too much these days so perhaps there is contemporary relevance. Does that make it OK to poke out horses’ eyes? Nothing here truly convinces.
Afterwards, where else could the Whingers decamp to but the appropriately named watering-hole The White Horse, to discuss the meaning of the play. Three out of four gave Equus the thumbs up. Sharon and Margie loved it. Phil’s thumb was wavering, but then it was gripped tightly round the Tempranillo. And being the grown up individuals we are, and in the absence of Andrew to lower the intellectual thermostat, not one mention of Daniel Radcliffe’s winky. Andrew may have missed the most talked about event on the London stage, but perhaps he’ll pop in if they re-title Equus: Snake on a Mane.