Equus, Gielgud Theatre, London

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The central images of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus are of an adolescent boy with one or more horses. He embraces the horse. He rides the horse in a union that’s full of sexual charge. He is taken by his girlfriend to make love in the horses’ stable. He blinds the horses. The images, even the most traumatic, are all deeply romantic: the human establishing passionate contact with the animal. Collectively, they have a dark, mythic force.

Equus was a sensation when new – the original production ran for years – and today, particularly for audiences coming to it for the first time, many of them doubtless now drawn by the prospect of seeing Daniel Harry Potter Radcliffe onstage, its basic idea is still strong. John Napier, designing, gives us the stables as amphitheatre, with some of the audience seated above them. The horse-actors, in memorably sculpted steel masks and hooves, stand still in striking legs-apart positions.

Shaffer, however, frames the play as the memory of the child’s psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. Part of the play is a suspense drama as he investigates what has happened. But part of it is just blather. The central Apollo-vs-Dionysus dichotomy of most Shaffer plays – familiar from Amadeus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun (both revived last year) and others – is forced so that the poor psychiatrist, with his unhappy marriage and low sperm count, is made to envy this horse-maiming boy because of the wild animal passion he has experienced. Worse, the poor central horse becomes the focus of all the boy’s nexus of anxieties, from sperm to Jesus.

The charm and energy that characterise Radcliffe’s Harry surface briefly here in Act Two. But the stage takes all the physical and vocal limitations that on screen make him amiably normal and turns them into fatal stiffness and monotony. There’s no pathos, no need, no anguish.

It’s fascinating to turn from his toned but dull physicality to the ultra-corpulence of Richard Griffiths, who, as Dysart, is peculiarly expressive and natural in every effortful transfer of weight. Likewise Griffiths’s odd voice and diction, which are so often nearly indistinct, are always bizarrely expressive in their reedy mixture of chest and nasal sound. As directed by Thea Sharrock, the contours of Shaffer’s play are perfectly lucid. But all that verbal blather is wearing. The mind wanders.

A ludicrous amount of worldwide pre-publicity has attached to the prospect of seeing Radcliffe. What kind of gossipy prurience is it that leads journalists to spend space and time on the stage nudity of Radcliffe, Ian Holm (King Lear), Kathleen Turner and Jerry Hall (The Graduate) and others? Stage nudity was won in the name of liberation. But this let’s-see-it clucking puts that achievement into reverse. ★★☆☆☆
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