Harry Potter screen co-stars Daniel Radcliffe (pictured) and Richard Griffiths reunite on stage in the new West End revival of Peter Shaffer’s controversial 1973 classic Equus which opened last night (27 February 2007, previews from 16 February) at the Gielgud Theatre, where the strikingly bold and black front-of-house edifice extended over the pavement into Shaftesbury Avenue, literally stopping traffic in Theatreland’s main thoroughfare (See News, 1 Nov 2006).
In Equus, psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Griffiths) tries to solve the problem of why a quiet 17-year-old with a routine life and loving family would suddenly blind six horses with a hoof pick. What drove Alan Strang (Radcliffe) to such an act of violence? Shaffer’s play was originally presented by the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1973, directed by John Dexter, and starring Alec McCowen as the psychiatrist and Peter Firth as the patient.
While Griffiths is a stage veteran – who won myriad Best Actor prizes for his last role in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys - Equus marks the stage debut for Radcliffe, known around the globe as the precocious wizard from the Harry Potter film series, in which Griffiths plays his vile uncle. The cast also features Will Kemp, Jenny Agutter, Gabrielle Ready, Jonathan Cullen and newcomer Joanna Christie.
Equus is directed by Thea Sharrock - outgoing artistic director of west London’s Gate Theatre, who previously directed Griffiths in the West End in Heroes - and designed by the play’s original designer John Napier, who was lured out of semi-retirement for the revival.
Overnight critics were impressed with Radcliffe who successfully managed to “throw off the mantle” of Harry Potter and prove his mettle as a stage actor. They also applauded Radcliffe’s ability to overcome the hype surrounding the play’s much-publicised nude scene, which he played bravely and completely in character. However, some critics were not quite so convinced that Radcliffe had the emotional range to capture every aspect of the troubled teenager, and while some were not too fond of Shaffer’s play itself, many praised Sharrock’s production for its evocative atmosphere and emotional impact.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) –
Wild horses, I thought, wouldn’t drag me to Equus all over again…. Radcliffe… is tremendous – taut, composed, glinting with a kind of malicious glee and absolutely spot-on in charting a progress from childhood to the lost innocence of growing up…. Shaffer’s twist was to make the act of mutilation one of frustration and rejection after failing to find a satisfactory physical expression with the young stable girl, Jill (Joanna Christie), who seduces him after a night out in Winchester…. The subsequent sex scene of their own, and the final sequence of the play, leading to the mutilation, is touchingly and beautifully played by the two young actors in the buff…. Thea Sharrock’s production is notably well acted… Will Kemp, one of Matthew Bourne’s leading dancers, is an elegant horseman on the beach, where the six-year old Alan first discovers his passion, and also Nugget, the main horse in the stable…. A marvellous evening.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “The revelation of this revival is that Daniel Radcliffe really can act…. I think Shaffer romanticises pain. But, to his credit, he also creates an exciting spectacle, well realised in Thea Sharrock's vivid production and beautifully lit by David Hersey. On a stage designed, as in 1973 at the Old Vic, by John Napier, we watch entranced as actors in equine masks and towering cothurni, or boots, assume the role of horses…. Richard Griffiths has a harder task in reconciling me to the self-loathing of the over-burdened shrink; and there were times when I missed the sheer vocal incisiveness Alec McCowen originally brought to the role. But Griffiths lends the part his own air of vulnerable humanity…. The supporting roles are not exactly richly written, but Jenny Agutter as a sympathetic magistrate, Jonathan Cullen as Alan's taciturn father, Gabrielle Reidy as his religion-obsessed mother, and Joanna Christie as a sexually exploratory stable girl all do good work.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) – “OK, it was exactly what all that prurient hype promised. For his theatrical debut last night, 17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe was brave enough to perform the denouement of Equus without wearing so much as the specs that are his Potter insignia…. Radcliffe proves an assured actor and makes a perfectly able equimaniac. He can do aggression and pain, and, oddly, is lacking only in the sense of magic and wonder the part demands…. Thea Sharrock’s production combines to good theatrical effect with John Napier’s simple design… The horses, actors with golden heads and hooves, look terrific. And Radcliffe has only one obvious weakness. His Alan is pale, vulnerable, defensive, surprisingly tough; but he’s supposed also to find an exhilaration bordering on religious ecstasy in the company and, especially, the secret riding of horses. This, Radcliffe misses.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Regular readers may recall that I am no great fan of the playwright Peter Shaffer…. And even I must concede that Equus, which I last saw as a trainee reviewer in the mid-Seventies, packs a terrific theatrical punch in Thea Sharrock's powerful revival, evocatively designed once again by John Napier. Better yet, Daniel Radcliffe brilliantly succeeds in throwing off the mantle of Harry Potter, announcing himself as a thrilling stage actor of unexpected range and depth…. There are moments when he seems genuinely scary in his rage and confusion…. Radcliffe… superbly lays bare the sheer rawness of youth, the sudden mood swings of adolescence, and that intense unforgettable feeling that you are in a hostile world all on your own…. Griffiths once again reveals what a superb actor he is. He conducts the psychotherapy sessions with Radcliffe with a beautiful tenderness, understanding and humour that proves deeply moving…. The actors impersonating the horses do so with tremendous skill and grace…. The play, for all its occasional foolishness, looks like being a huge hit all over again.”
David Lister in the Independent - “Radcliffe acquits himself well. He is not the most expressive of actors, and his stage presence will take time to evolve; but from the moment he enters the psychiatrist's office, shoulders hunched, eyes narrowed and singing advertising jingles to avoid questioning, he cuts a compelling figure. As the evening goes on, there are moments when he touches, even if not tugs at, the heart strings…. If the production is well served by Radcliffe, he is not that well served by the production. The director, Thea Sharrock, fails too often to capture the tension in this psychological thriller; too many of the minor parts are curiously undercast (though Joanna Christie as the girlfriend is convincingly coquettish)…. As the psychiatrist, Richard Griffiths commands the stage as he always does; but his was not an interpretation I warmed to…. But no caveats can fully detract from the punch that this powerful and haunting play still packs.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Radcliffe plays Strang and, glaring eyes apart, emphasises his vulnerability…. When it came down to basics, though, Radcliffe's striptease with his would-be girlfriend Jill, an equally nude Joanna Christie, loomed small compared with the impact of the stylised scene of the horses' destruction. Six actors wear wire-frame horses' heads, with metal platform hooves. Their hollow eyes glow in the dark. Whinnying, rearing and hoof-stamping, they suffer Alan's attacks. For sheer shock effect, nothing else in Thea Sharrock's undercharged production matches this scene…. Richard Griffiths is far too affable, winsome and relaxed as the psychiatrist Dysart…. Shaffer's casebook finally leaves you shaking your head in disbelief. Equus works as theatre, if not as psychological case-study, if shrink and patient are made desperate by the battle over passion, rationalism and religion. Griffiths, though, packs no emotional punch, lacking the agitated despair Alec McCowen brought to the role, while Radcliffe's touching, little-boy lost Alan never convinces you he is wild with desire for horses or girls. Equus still fascinates, but this revival lacks horse-power.”
- by Caroline Ansdell & Terri Paddock