It's 2.30am and I've just travelled back from the first night of previews of Equus at The Gielgud theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Walking through the streets of London afterwards with a friend I realised I was in a state of stunned shock, quite profoundly upset and distressed. I have known the play for many years, read it a number of times and ditto the film but never seen it on stage. I was 2 years old when the original 1973 version was on at The National Theatre and provoked a storm of controversy... but I should start at the beginning, as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart says, at the beginning of the play.
The set for this production was designed by John Napier who designed the 1972 original. It was, in many respects an updating of that design. A sparse set of four black blocks (the whole set is black) on a revolving central dais with two ranks of seating high up above the stage like an old 'anatomy theatre'. Six huge black doors around the rear, under the 'stage seating' open to become stable doors from which the much updated 'horses' emerge at various points.
The story is familiar to most but if you do not know it and want to learn it by going to see the play then stop reading now. Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe), a 17 year old boy blinds six horses with a metal spike and is sent to the care of psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths); the play is the story of his treatment, told by Dysart who is, at the same time, feeling a crisis of vocation, agonising over the sense of wonder, passion and worship that he has to remove from his child patients in order to also remove their pain.
Strang comes from a dysfunctional family but not more than most (perhaps a little more than would have been admitted in the 1970s) a religious mother, an emotially cold and atheist father (those performances are wonderful precisely for their depiction of the ordinary-wierdness of families) who becomes obssessed with horses from a very young age. The obssession becomes a form of worship and he develops a fairly structured form of worship muddling up the violent images of Christianity with an Equine archetype he names Equus - both a slave and a master to humans (ie to Strang himself). With puberty the obssession becomes sexual and the when Strang has his first fumbling sexual encounter with a girl - in the barn attached to the stables, all he can see is Equus, and in a psychotic moment takes the metal spike to the stable and blinds the horses so they can no longer look at him, so Equus can no longer watch him. In Mythical terms he is trying to blind his god to his sins...
This is an intense play. It follows the destruction and rebuilding of a young soul and although there is healing, there is also loss because of the healing. Sitting six row back in the stalls, behind Radcliffe's family, there was a real immediacy to the experience. There's no denying that this production has been about Daniel Radcliffe from the beginning, heavily trailed with near-nude promotional shots and of course, his worldwide fame through the Harry Potter movies has made this an event that it otherwise wouldn't have been. That said, as a bit of a Daniel Radcliffe fan in my dizzy moments, he put in an astonishing performance. The nudity was far less shocking than seeing him smoking and swearing violenty, and when the clothes did come off, for all the talk of 'Dan the Man' and tabloid prurience about 'How Harry has Grown', it was quite clear that Alan Strang is a boy. Radcliffe may have been buffing up at the gym but he is still a slight and vulnerable-looking (and though he doesn't like it much - short) boy. All of which was only enhanced his characterisation.
I can't provide a 'theatre review' as such, I'm too tired and drained. The play has always been popular among gay men. The eroticism of the male horse and the disturbed teenage boy is a very 'masculine' experience in many ways (this production opens with a shirtless Strang pressed against the chest of his favourite horse 'Nugget'). The play is also about the conflict of teenage boy with adult world particularly as it revolves around sexuality. This, plus the fact that Alan Strang is normally played by a cutie in the nude (one has to be honest about this) has made for something of a gay following for the play. What I didn't realise was how much this tragic examination of mental illness was going to affect me. Far more than when reading the play or watching the film. Everything about me which has ever felt vulnerable, everything which is not quite right in my head and every unresolved issue of adolescence (and who doesn't have those), every pained desire for human contact and every imaginary emotional world I have ever created were presented back to me and torn apart on the stage. I'm not claiming this as a unique experience, when the play was written the 'generation conflict' and the notion of what it means to be a teenager were just as hot topics as they are today and form a central theme of the play and we all loose something of our sense of 'worship' to survive in an adult world. I am just stating my personal response. I feel as though I have been through a family tragedy, in my own family, impotent to do anything about it, as if the tragedy was, in some way, me.
I do not mind feeling like this. I am not about to fall into a pit of despair from which I will never rise. This is what good theatre, really good theatre should do to you... and Equus did.