Sadly, any time someone who has been in the movies takes off their clothes in a play, it is big, big news. Tonight Daniel Radcliffe opens Equus - the first night of previews. Sixty members of the audience actually sit on stage. That's where my ticket is. I really hope I remember to turn off my mobile.
The hype seems to have worked Swann if you have made the effort to get stage seats for the preview! Don't forget not to rustle your crisp packet and put the poor lad off his stride.... I am going to the Lyric in Hammersmith tonight to see The Ramayana - will report back.
“What does a person have to do to get sympathy in today’s world? Blind animals?”
-- Mrs Strang, Equus.
At the first night of previews for Equus, the stage was very crowded – sixty members of the audience share the stage with a cast of fourteen, Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter, The Harry Potter Movies, Richard Griffiths, The History Boys, and Richard Griffith’s recent weight loss. Through these crowds it was possible to glimpse the point of the play, but hard to glimpse its greatness. The stage was just too crowded.
Schaffer is a great playwright and this is a great play, done well. Equus (like Griffith’s last play, History Boys) premiered in London one year and won the Tony for best play in New York the next. It tells the story of Alan Strang (Radcliffe), a 17-year-old who is in a mental hospital for blinding six horses with a nasty sharp tool and Martin Dysart (Griffiths), the small town child psychiatrist who agrees to treat him.
The play unpacks the story of Alan Strang’s life and ingeniously makes Alan’s horse dalliances inevitable and pitiable. His mother is a devout Christian with a penchant for story-telling, his father is a repressed, angry atheist. Alan is a truly wonderful person, passionate and creative, but the only vocabulary he has to express this magnificence are bible stories from his mother and pictures of horses from his father.
So Alan forces these limited stories, full of pain and judgment, into his inner world – a world much more compelling and real for him than the outer world-- his lousy day job at an appliance store and his lousy home life, dominated by his parents’ fractious marriage. The supreme and controlling ritual in his inner life is a homoerotic midnight union with the horses whose stables he mucks out on the weekends – the spirit of Equus. The ritual is compelling and compassionately portrayed: it has its own scriptures, stories, canons and rules.
Alan’s vibrant inner life and bleak outer life co-exist uneasily until the night he first explores his sexuality with another person. He has the cute stable maid out on a date. She suggests a porn movie and all goes swimmingly until they run into Alan’s father. Drag. Then the cute stable maid wants to do it in the stables in front of his all-seeing slave-gods, the horses. He has to stop this all-seeing eye. He blinds them. (Yes, Mrs. Strang, he does have to blind animals in order to get sympathy. Thus we have made the world.)
This play illustrates why it is so hard to be a parent. Every dynamic in your life, every nuance of your relationship with your partner, every story you tell your child and, more importantly, every story that you unwittingly act out in front of your child is absorbed by them – it is their prison sentence and their freedom, their most blessed understanding of life and the source of all their confusion. And we don’t know as parents or as shrinks why some stories harden into rules and some don’t. It’s all very complicated.
Alan Strang had no stories other than his mother’s lurid tales of religious martyrdom and his father’s repressive exhortations to diligence and abhorrence of sloth. So these are the stories that snapped together, like magnets, to make a chain of ritual that bound Alan to his only expressions of pleasure. As a mother of a three-year-old, this play made me nervous. I went to see the play last night and tonight I read stories to my kid until my tongue cramped and my voice went hoarse. I want him to have a wide vocabulary for his suffering and his joy.
The set is simple and effective, the six lasciviously gay-seeming men who play the horses are wonderful. The costumes of the horses, the horseshoes and bridles and bits, are fetish wear.
Our Beatrice in our trip through Alan Strang’s psyche is the brutally honest Martin Dysart, the shrink who understands that to shrink someone is to take away their pain but also take away their personhood, their fire. Even as he heals Alan, Martin reveals his own strictured woundedness – his lousy marriage, his doubts on life. Dysart says at one point that he is big enough for psychiatry but psychiatry is not big enough for him. I nodded knowingly (and I was on stage so maybe some of the many canoodling ancient gay couples in the audience saw me). I am, as it turns out, more than big enough for the law but the law is not big enough for me – that is why I am trying to be a playwright.
And, get this – it’s not only Dysart to whom I claim superior understanding. Alan Strang too. I am Bipolar I, I have done strange things, I have been sequestered in a mental hospital. I know what it is like to have the passion and the creativity but only the hobbled vocabulary of Christianity. I understand how both Martin and Alan are too much for what they are.
Griffiths is a superior actor. With a cunning, realistic yet fake smile he brings alive the Copenhagen-like speeches -- the pronouncements of psychiatry theory. Radcliffe is a superior actor. Whenever his interaction with another character was banal or pedestrian, he absolutely shined. He is a cast in search of a farce.
But Radcliffe is Harry Potter, and that is not an association that is left at the door. I wish it was, but the sighing fifteen-year-old girls next to me for the ten minute nude scene decided otherwise. Radcliffe is the face of a boy best beloved by many, many children. When his character suffers, Harry Potter suffers. I found my self wondering whether it was better to be orphaned, like Potter, or to suffer the parents of Alan Strang. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m pretty sure that it was distracting to worry about it.
Also, Radcliffe is uber-normal. He has not known the pain and repression necessary to be Alan Strang and he hasn’t found it with this director. Alan Strang is truly nuts - like me when I was really crazy – he operates on a completely different plane than his sane counterparts. Neural superhighways of normality dominate the human race. Crazy people have jumped track and are operating in strange neural back allies and uncharted wilderness. Radcliffe aspired to play a crazy person, but it was clear to this crazy person that he didn’t have the life experience or the imagination to successfully jump the tracks. Lucky him. Radcliffe is cute and successful – he is not abnormal like us crazies, he is uber-normal. He will be a great actor in farces and comedies, I have no doubt.
I thought at least the shrink – Dysart -- would be free of this mantle of past celebrity associations but Griffiths is so steeped in History Boys that I found this problematic too. This play is simultaneously a love letter and a ruthless damnation of psychiatry, in the person of Martin Dysart. Griffiths is morbidly obese. This fact inescapably influences our understanding of both psychiatry and his character Dysart – his vulnerability, his sexuality, and his relationship to the prosecutor.
I was so excited to have these tickets that I put on eyeliner and my good earrings and felt I was at a real event. But in the end, it didn’t make my top five. Leave this one for the people who don’t read theatre reviews. They’ll like it fine.
'Oak Tree' got the most dreadful review in The Sunday Times today which quite put me off going to see it.
'The Ramayana' is worth a look, but it wasn't nearly as stunning as David Farr's version of 'The Odyssey' last year. I think he isn't as well versed in the great ancient Hindu stories as he is in the Greek ones and it was almost as if he were nervous with taking the base material and running off somewhere new and original with it.
The set was stunning and inventive but the storyline got confused even though the actors kept telling us what was going on to a tiresome extent (I would read up on the legend first) and several of the actors were poor in their diction. There were plenty of amusing moments (especially when the monkey gods got going!) but the casting was very strange with two characters being trans-sexed for no apparent reason which came over as a bit daft considerining India has a very established Hijra/transvestite culture that could have been tapped into (of perhaps that was what they were trying to do and failed?).
On the up-side, Farr managed to mix elements of very varied theatre styles (a Kabuki sequence of walking across the sea using bamboo poles looked great) yet there was very little that felt 'Indian' about such an Indian tale - the costume is dreadfully dull.
I went with Indian mates who are Hindus so they were brought up with these stories and they were distinctly undewhelmed by the story-telling as well as me (which ended in a most peculiar place) and the style of the show.
I would have to give it six out of ten - a bit of a disappointment from such a great theatre practitioner.
Yes I was sorry I missed Odyssey and I had free tickets too! Thanks for the review and thanks Swann for the Equus review.
An Oak Tree...hmmm. I'll keep it brief. Like MMM loved the concept but was very disappointed with the show. I LOVE David Harewood so was really excited to see him as the guest actor. At the end of it I felt so sorry for him. I'm sure he was thinking WTF was that all about? So many reasons why it didn't work for me but here are my two main bug bears:
1. Tim Crouch is NOT a good actor. I was watching through my fingers when he was playing the part of the wife (shudder)
2. The play was over directed by Tim Crouch and the guest actor was effectively shackled by that.
Thank god for wine and thank god for good company afterwards. Don't recommend this show.
Thanks for The Oak Tree review - I will give it a wide bearth. It is great having these reviews here as there is so much theatre in London I get confused over what I should see when I am so spoiled for choice.
Genrally I trust The Times reviewers (well, they gave me a half page 4 star review last year, so I would say that) and anything that Time Out hate I rush to see as their reviewers are a bunch of chumps!
This week I am off to see the Gilbert & George show at Tate Modern - not quite theatre, but bound to be theatrical....
OK, so I am talking to my husband's goddaughter today about Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who starred in this play, Harry Potter himself and I tell her all about the play - which at age 12 she had no idea had happened. I tell her about DR getting naked for the play and me sitting on the stage and my husband - who usually does not interrupt at all on my theatrical review monologues - stops me to tell the god daughter that I almost had a stroke.