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Equus Re-Visited

by ClaireJul 29, 2009

Now that Dan’s birthday has come and gone, we have a post-birthday treat for you: Dr.com reader and friend Danilo thought it would be fun to take a jaunt down memory lane and revisit Equus on Broadway through his cleverly written critique of the play. So sit back, relax and let your mind’s eye guide you back through time as the first strains of haunting music fill the air of the Broadhurst Theatre and Dan steps out on stage…     

West End theatre producer David Pugh remarked that when Daniel Radcliffe read for Equus in front of Peter Shaffer, those present could not take their eyes off him.”

Daniel Radcliffe in Equus

West End theatre producer David Pugh remarked that when Daniel Radcliffe read for Equus in front of Peter Shaffer, those present could not take their eyes off him.

That was true for me as well when I attended the play in London and in New York.  It’s not just that the minimalist set of four rectangular boxes focuses one’s attention on the actors to an unusual degree.  The production’s staging itself seems quite intent on making one follow Radcliffe’s every move.

He’s hardly ever off the stage, quite frequently positioned to be at the highest point on it, and also the one most actively in motion.  Radcliffe is the lone cast member who jumps to stand on the boxes, or sits tall atop up-ended boxes.  There is one notable exception when the horseman Lorenzo Pisoni stands on a box while Radcliffe crouches on the ground below (he is a six-year-old building a sandcastle on a beach), but even then, soon enough Radcliffe is riding on Pisoni’s shoulders, back again at the highest elevation on stage.

Radcliffe is the only one in the cast whom the staging allows to come out of character while performing.  Staying on stage even when not involved in the action, by the play’s conventions he is understood to be off-stage in another room when he is atop a box with his back to the audience.  When Radcliffe leaves or rejoins the main action in this manner, it is always with a single, fluid and graceful motion that he pulls himself on top of a box; or he pushes off with his arms and leaps gymnastically, nailing solid landings a good distance away.  Unless we are to believe that Alan Strang (Radcliffe) habitually leaps off his furniture in such a theatrical manner, then we have to accept that these actions are a performance not in the character of Strang. It’s still part of the show; it’s stylized; it’s beautiful; and it works. 

Radcliffe transitions between naturalistic and stylized action throughout the play, and it’s so smoothly done as to be almost imperceptible to the audience that that is actually what is happening.  This brings an element of cohesion, seamlessly fusing the reality enacted by the human characters in the story, with the mystical, inhabited by the horses and their choreographed movements (which are interpretive, but not imitative of the animal).  Radcliffe plays both the unremarkable boy, and equally the passionate worshipper given over to ritualized acts with his horse-god Equus.  The gymnastic fireworks of Strang’s attack on the horses is the culmination of all this – it’s ‘what really happened’, staged spectacularly as the nightmare of Strang’s disturbed sleep.  With Strang’s mind so completely gone over to communing within the realm of Equus, Radcliffe’s act is to leap and dance with the horses.  Like watching Guernica set in motion, the lighting, the din, and the frenzied danger of the actors’ angular movements evoked the violence, chaos and tension of the Picasso.

With regard to naturalistic acting, Radcliffe’s Broadway performances improved on what was already strong in London’s West End.  His voice was markedly better modulated, and he certainly has got non-verbal communication down pat: flicking both index fingers towards Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths) to mean ‘spot on’, or lazily raising his leg and foot to point ‘you’, as one would do.  His face and eyes are particularly expressive, to the point where I dare say the rest of his body language has just a bit of catching up to do, to equal what his facial expressions can convey.

If there was a weak moment in Radcliffe’s performance, it was during the stable owner Harry Dalton’s visit to Dysart, with Radcliffe acting out what Dalton describes of Strang stealing away at night with a borrowed horse.  London critics were vocal about the lack of a believably sensual relationship between Strang and his horse, and subsequently the New York performances tried to address the criticism.  Radcliffe’s hands grope upwards through the horse’s skin, and he pushes his face into flesh.  The problem, though, was that his body wasn’t registering any sensual pleasure with these actions, remaining oddly rigid at an extended arm’s length away.  Sensuality was better conveyed in the posed, static embraces between Strang and his horse Nugget, and indeed, still photographs of this embrace delivered more than the active, but mechanical groping.  Now, sensuality and tenderness were there on stage between Radcliffe and Anna Camp, which leads one to conclude there weren’t enough gay men on Broadway and amongst Radcliffe’s friends to point out the tiny, awkward bit in his performance.


And so, from that to the sublime: what was superbly effective was the more nuanced and detailed night ride Radcliffe perfected in New York.  As Dysart explains, Strang lives for one hour every three weeks when he rides, and appropriately, this is where Radcliffe added the greatest and most effective change to his depiction of Strang.

In London, Strang’s exhilaration in his ritual act with the horse built in a crescendo ever upwards in triumphant “Ha ha’s” to a final, emphatic “Amen!”  In that ride there was no doubt or reservation in Strang, his whole being committed to his worship.

By New York, Radcliffe’s delivery was rising and falling, measured, sometimes momentarily halting.  Strang’s ritual still began confident and boastful, but then anguish from within made its way out to his voice.  Exhilaration is tempered with grief, as Strang reached for the divine, plaintive in crying to be one with his god.  Here Strang has been a practitioner of his worship long enough, such that the ritual has started to falter.  Doubt has found a foothold, whether from the grudging realization that what he wishes is not possible, or that he knows what he was doing is wrong.  Thrusting his hips jerkily, Strang climaxes sexually, but there is no joy in it, only fatigue and a desperation to see the rite through. He is utterly spent, and his body and head bow to rest on his horse while he draws breath deeply.  Again desperate to complete his duty, he struggles to find the strength to lift his head, extend his arms and throw his chest out powerfully. ‘Amen.’

Each and every time I watched Radcliffe bring Act I of this play to its close was a tour de force.  The scene has always been massively impactful anyway, conceived by Shaffer to gobsmack the theatre.  But in New York Radcliffe took it back from its otherworldly brink and injected human weakness straight into its heart.  It is absolutely the finest piece of performance yet of Daniel Radcliffe’s young career.

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