Harry Potter Grows Up In Equus
By Jill Lawless for AP, 27th February 2007
LONDON – Hermione, we’re not at Hogwarts anymore.
That’s enough about Harry Potter — the distorting but inescapable lens through which a new London production of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” will be viewed. The show marks the West End debut of Daniel Radcliffe, known to millions as the boy wizard in the film adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s best-selling novels.
It is, as has been repeatedly noted, a bold choice for the 17-year-old actor. Long before opening night, the media was chronicling the swearing, smoking, sexuality — and, especially, the nudity — required of Radcliffe.
An anti-smoking group criticized the actor for sparking up onstage. Warner Bros., the studio behind the Harry Potter movies, issued a statement denying reports that it was unhappy with Radcliffe’s edgy new image. The studio said it considered Radcliffe a “great collaborator”” and supported the “artistic choices he makes as an actor.”
“I sort of expected it really,” Radcliffe said Tuesday about the controversy over the play’s nude scene. “If I went into it thinking nobody was going to talk about it, I would have been very stupid.”
The publicity has helped the production sell $3.1 million worth of advance tickets and drew a host of stars — including Bob Geldof,Helena Bonham Carter and Christian Slater — to Tuesday’s opening-night performance at the Gielgud Theatre.
The play is indeed a brave choice, but also a sensible one for a very famous young actor who has said he wants “to shake up people’s perception of me.”
Almost grown, lightly muscled, sporting the first shoots of a beard, Radcliffe is well suited to the role of Alan Strang, a young stable boy sent to a psychiatric hospital after committing a brutal, seemingly inexplicable crime — he has blinded six horses with a metal spike.
For the most part, Radcliffe’s performance is assured. His vocal range may be a bit narrow — he has a tendency to convey Strang’s anguish by shouting — but his hooded eyes and hunched, defensive posture convey a wounded and bewildered young man. And when he finally lets loose in the climactic 10 minutes of nudity, he is emotionally unrestrained and compelling.
Radcliffe is fortunate to star opposite the endlessly subtle Richard Griffiths, Harry’s dastardly Uncle Vernon in the Potter movies and a Tony Award winner last year for “The History Boys.” Griffiths portrays Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist who slowly unravels the teenager’s obsession and comes to envy his intense, transgressive communion with the horses.
Radcliffe aside, Shaffer’s play is given a strong, sensuous staging by young director Thea Sharrock. The play itself can feel a tad self-important, as Shaffer paints a swirl of the pagan, the primitive and the psyche around Strang’s quasi-spiritual, erotic obsession with horses. “Equus” opened in 1973 at London’s National Theatre, before a successful run on Broadway starring Anthony Hopkins. Richard Burton and Peter Firth starred in a 1977 film version.
Sharrock’s production is spare and elegant, with John Napier’s minimalist set evoking an ancient amphitheater, setting for ritual, drama or sacrifice. The horses that are central to the story are subtly and brilliantly depicted by actors using masks and movement.
This production will pack in the crowds thanks to Radcliffe’s fame and the unstoppable Harry Potter brand. It deserves to succeed on its own merits. Radcliffe proves he can shed, at least temporarily, the boy wizard’s robes.
“Equus” is on view until June 9. Radcliffe returns as the teenage wizard in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” opening July 13.