From the archives: Equus in London, March 2007
Intending to write a commentary about Daniel Radcliffe’s recent film What If, I instead found myself recalling when I saw him perform live onstage at the Gielgud Theatre in London, in a role that drew significant media attention. Thankfully, I wrote about the performance on LiveJournal a few days later…
This production lives up to the hype, in nearly all elements. Coming into the Gielgud Theatre with a significantly better seat than when I saw Frost/Nixon, I was immediately struck by the scope of the set. A plain proscenium stage had been turned into an almost theatre-in-the-round style area, with a central elevated level that could be turned if needed surrounded by openings off stage, symbolizing stable doors, and also, perhaps, different tracks of life from which Alan and Dysart could proceed onto when the show concluded. There were also audience members seated above the stage in a semi-circle to continue the effect of observation. Lighting design stood out from the beginning, as the show opened with Radcliffe proceeding centre stage with one of the horses (actually a performer in costume with a large head of a horse) and being symbolically isolated from all, just a kid and his horse.
Richard Griffiths came onstage as soon as the play began and almost never went off, requiring great concentration on his and the audiences parts. But he succeeded in so many ways, stepping in front of Radcliffe’s press-attention (as other reviewers have noted) to deliver a complex portrayal of Martin Dysart, sympathetic psychotherapist. In Griffiths’ hands, Dysart became a warm filter, or magnifying glass, through which the audience could observe and comment on the actions of the play. He also conveyed Dysart’s shifting motivations and impassions over the course of the story. Initially he was eager to take on a new client and thought that he could relatively easily break through to Alan, leaving the job done and the Strang family reunited together again. But in the reality of the narrative, Dysart only continues to be more and more buried in his work, developing more and more distance from what little home life he has and throwing himself into talking with his clients. This predicament was both noble and tragic, and Griffiths’ slightly remorseful line inflictions highlighted his character’s personal challenges throughout the show.
Daniel Radcliffe deserves enormous kudos for being bold enough to step out of the Harry Potter typecasting into a role so different from what his fans (and critics) are accustomed to seeing him in. He almost completely pulled off the part, in my opinion. I’m sure that he could project from experience in the early scenes of Alan demonstrating his jaded-teenagerdom life and his disdain for his family and friends. However, the characterization often seemed to end there. When Alan was supposed to be younger, or more intimate with his friends and family, Radcliffe continued to speak in a forceful tone (not quite a monotone, more of a vocal strain) that showed his built up anguish, but not his scared-ness beneath that anxiety. I wanted to see him dive deeper into the psychological problems that Alan faces. However, I suspect (or hope) that his character investigations might continue as the show’s run goes along. He remained completely committed and in the moment with the stage actions, especially in the scenes that are causing the most controversy. Also, the relationship between him and Richard Griffiths was strongly balance – counterbalanced in their scenes together. At the curtain call it was clear that they are dependent on each other but enjoying the process, as they preceded centre-stage with their arms around each other, like a grandparent-grandson relationship might be.
The rest of the cast was somewhat victimized by the thinly-drawn nature of the supporting characters in the script. However, Jenny Auggiter (as the magistrate), Joanna Christie (as Alan’s girlfriend), and Jonathan Cullen (Alan’s dad) all invested meaningful levels of psychological realism in their portrayals. All three of them carefully balanced a level of character inquiry and being in the moment with a full awareness that in reality there would not be a clear, immediate resolution to the plot.
In conclusion, this version of Equus is a compelling evening of theatre. Although it’s not quite as good as the hype machine may have lead you to believe, it certainly lives up to the publicity, and Griffiths’ and Radcliffe’s double-act stands high as a professional theatre example of actorly collaboration and rich investment in full dramatic art.