A Review of Equus at the Gielgud
© Rachel Mariner 2007
“What does a person have to do to get sympathy in today’s world? Blind animals?”
-- Mrs Strang, Equus.
At the first night of previews for Equus, the stage was very crowded – sixty members of the audience share the stage with a cast of fourteen, Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter, The Harry Potter Movies, Richard Griffiths, The History Boys, and Richard Griffith’s recent weight loss. Through these crowds it was possible to glimpse the point of the play, but hard to glimpse its greatness. The stage was just too crowded.
Schaffer is a great playwright and this is a great play, done well. Equus (like Griffith’s last play, History Boys) premiered in London one year and won the Tony for best play in New York the next. It tells the story of Alan Strang (Radcliffe), a 17-year-old who is in a mental hospital for blinding six horses with a nasty sharp tool and Martin Dysart (Griffiths), the small town child psychiatrist who agrees to treat him.
The play unpacks the story of Alan Strang’s life and ingeniously makes Alan’s horse dalliances inevitable and pitiable. His mother is a devout Christian with a penchant for story-telling, his father is a repressed, angry atheist. Alan is a truly wonderful person, passionate and creative, but the only vocabulary he has to express this magnificence are bible stories from his mother and pictures of horses from his father.
So Alan forces these limited stories, full of pain and judgment, into his inner world – a world much more compelling and real for him than the outer world-- his lousy day job at an appliance store and his lousy home life, dominated by his parents’ fractious marriage. The supreme and controlling ritual in his inner life is a homoerotic midnight union with the horses whose stables he mucks out on the weekends – the spirit of Equus. The ritual is compelling and compassionately portrayed: it has its own scriptures, stories, canons and rules.
Alan’s vibrant inner life and bleak outer life co-exist uneasily until the night he first explores his sexuality with another person. He has the cute stable maid out on a date. She suggests a porn movie and all goes swimmingly until they run into Alan’s father. Drag. Then the cute stable maid wants to do it in the stables in front of his all-seeing slave-gods, the horses. He has to stop this all-seeing eye. He blinds them. (Yes, Mrs. Strang, he does have to blind animals in order to get sympathy. Thus we have made the world.)
This play illustrates why it is so hard to be a parent. Every dynamic in your life, every nuance of your relationship with your partner, every story you tell your child and, more importantly, every story that you unwittingly act out in front of your child is absorbed by them – it is their prison sentence and their freedom, their most blessed understanding of life and the source of all their confusion. And we don’t know as parents or as shrinks why some stories harden into rules and some don’t. It’s all very complicated.
Alan Strang had no stories other than his mother’s lurid tales of religious martyrdom and his father’s repressive exhortations to diligence and abhorrence of sloth. So these are the stories that snapped together, like magnets, to make a chain of ritual that bound Alan to his only expressions of pleasure. As a mother of a three-year-old, this play made me nervous. I went to see the play last night and tonight I read stories to my kid until my tongue cramped and my voice went hoarse. I want him to have a wide vocabulary for his suffering and his joy.
The set is simple and effective, the six lasciviously gay-seeming men who play the horses are wonderful. The costumes of the horses, the horseshoes and bridles and bits, are fetish wear.
Our Beatrice in our trip through Alan Strang’s psyche is the brutally honest Martin Dysart, the shrink who understands that to shrink someone is to take away their pain but also take away their personhood, their fire. Even as he heals Alan, Martin reveals his own strictured woundedness – his lousy marriage, his doubts on life. Dysart says at one point that he is big enough for psychiatry but psychiatry is not big enough for him. I nodded knowingly (and I was on stage so maybe some of the many canoodling ancient gay couples in the audience saw me). I am, as it turns out, more than big enough for the law but the law is not big enough for me – that is why I am trying to be a playwright.
And, get this – it’s not only Dysart to whom I claim superior understanding. Alan Strang too. I am Bipolar I, I have done strange things, I have been sequestered in a mental hospital. I know what it is like to have the passion and the creativity but only the hobbled vocabulary of Christianity. I understand how both Martin and Alan are too much for what they are.
Griffiths is a superior actor. With a cunning, realistic yet fake smile he brings alive the Copenhagen-like speeches -- the pronouncements of psychiatry theory. Radcliffe is a superior actor. Whenever his interaction with another character was banal or pedestrian, he absolutely shined. He is a cast in search of a farce.
But Radcliffe is Harry Potter, and that is not an association that is left at the door. I wish it was, but the sighing fifteen-year-old girls next to me for the ten minute nude scene decided otherwise. Radcliffe is the face of a boy best beloved by many, many children. When his character suffers, Harry Potter suffers. I found my self wondering whether it was better to be orphaned, like Potter, or to suffer the parents of Alan Strang. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m pretty sure that it was distracting to worry about it.
Also, Radcliffe is uber-normal. He has not known the pain and repression necessary to be Alan Strang and he hasn’t found it with this director. Alan Strang is truly nuts - like me when I was really crazy – he operates on a completely different plane than his sane counterparts. Neural superhighways of normality dominate the human race. Crazy people have jumped track and are operating in strange neural back allies and uncharted wilderness. Radcliffe aspired to play a crazy person, but it was clear to this crazy person that he didn’t have the life experience or the imagination to successfully jump the tracks. Lucky him. Radcliffe is cute and successful – he is not abnormal like us crazies, he is uber-normal. He will be a great actor in farces and comedies, I have no doubt.
I thought at least the shrink – Dysart -- would be free of this mantle of past celebrity associations but Griffiths is so steeped in History Boys that I found this problematic too. This play is simultaneously a love letter and a ruthless damnation of psychiatry, in the person of Martin Dysart. Griffiths is morbidly obese. This fact inescapably influences our understanding of both psychiatry and his character Dysart – his vulnerability, his sexuality, and his relationship to the prosecutor.
I was so excited to have these tickets that I put on eyeliner and my good earrings and felt I was at a real event. But in the end, it didn’t make my top five. Leave this one for the people who don’t read theatre reviews. They’ll like it fine.