Thursday, December 11, 2008

Equus


"Tragedy, for me, is not a conflict between right and wrong, but between two different kinds of right." -Peter Shaffer


Yesterday I took a day trip to New York and saw Daniel Radcliffe in Equus.

WOW.

Move over, Harry Potter; make way for Alan Strang, the disturbed teenager Radcliffe plays in this play by Peter Shaffer. Radcliffe has ENORMOUS talent. How does he get up there and DO that eight shows a week? It's a physically and emotionally demanding role that requires some pretty mature artistry, and he totally ROCKS.

Equally compelling, in a quieter way, is his co-star, Richard Griffiths, who has worked with Radcliffe on the Harry Potter films, playing his mean Uncle Vernon, and who in Equus plays Alan Strang's psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Dysart. The play centers around a doctor-patient relationship and explores themes of trust and vulnerability, faith and doubt, domination and enslavement, the Apollonian versus the Dionysian, and being full of passion versus being emotionally dead, not only through Alan's psychosis but also through the evolving relationship between the two main characters.

I can already hear the naysaying from psychiatrists and other mental health professionals about how this relationship is portrayed: "A doctor would never say that or do that!" or "It's totally unrealistic!" But I think such criticism misses the point. The play is not about what's "realistic" in the therapy relationship but rather what is REAL: it's about making internal drama visible, building trust, opening up and being vulnerable to another and/or to oneself. While I like Shaffer's Amadeus better - hmm, drawn to music over medicine - I was completely riveted by Equus, dark as it is, and would totally see it again.

I have to gush a little bit about the production design, direction, lighting, and choreography here. The set was deceptively simple: a semicircle of horse stalls surrounding a central area in which oblong blocks were moved about to suggest the various scenes in the play. The use of music and lighting conveyed just enough spookiness to put the audience on edge, anticipating some mysterious and perhaps ghastly revelation. And the horses, played by men on platform "hooves" wearing sculpted wire horse heads, with their surreal, rhythmic movements and eerily well-timed hoof beats on the wooden floor, especially at the most dramatic portions of the play, were completely breath-taking and really "made" the world of the play in a way no other element of the production could have.

Much has been made of the nudity in the play, and being a fairly "PG" person I was a little nervous about seeing the actors "bare all" right in front of me, but as the story unfolded I saw Shaffer's wisdom in writing the action this way. The physical nudity is nothing compared to the emotional nakedness that Strang enters into, and by extension, that Radcliffe must enter into in order to portray Strang, which he does with a magnetic vulnerability I didn't see in Peter Firth's interpretation in the film version.

The pain of Strang's character is so raw and so tragic. I'll never forget the pity I felt as Strang's mother described how Strang cried and cried when his father threw his picture of the suffering Christ in the trash, and how ominous it was that he recovered beautifully when the picture was replaced with the photograph of a horse. As the characters reveal clues about the mystery of that pain, in layers, Strang's psychological wound appears with greater and greater clarity, as if seeping through a dressing that's slowly being removed, until the wound is finally exposed in all its horror.

In the end one comes away realizing that deep compassion has replaced the initial inclination to abhor and judge the deranged teen as nothing more than a violent monster. Dr. Dysart goes through this journey himself and finds that there is an element of tragedy, too, in the healing of such a wound, in restoring what is "normal": by excising the offending portion of Strang's psyche, he is also "cutting out his heart," a life of worship and passion that Dysart wishes he could know for himself. Medicine becomes a constraint, a way of "reigning" in and being reigned in - as Dysart says, "all reigned up in old language and old assumptions;" it is also a way to take an individual's most precious and primal self from him, resulting in a deeply personal kind of loss that I've heard described by some patients who take antidepressants or antipsychotic medications.

Dr. Dysart, in the end - and here I cannot help noting the sound of his name, "dies-art" - burdened by the suffering he has witnessed or by the treatment he is contemplating, or both, identifies not only with his troubled patient but also with his patient's victims, the horses: "There is now in my mouth this sharp chain. And it never comes out."

It was an unforgettable theater experience.

I've embedded a Youtube video below of the last portion of Daniel Radcliffe's appearance on Inside the Actor's Studio, which I caught last week on T.V. I was so impressed with the intelligence, maturity, humor, humility, and professionalism he projected during this interview that it was ultimately what made me decide to take the day trip into Manhattan to see the play. See him articulately quote Keats at minute 3:09 and explain to an acting student at minute 8:08 what he tells himself to keep his performance fresh every time. What an impressive and self-possessed young artist.






Equus Cast, Broadway 2008

Martin Dysart...........................................Richard Griffiths
Alan Strang..............................................Daniel Radcliffe
Nurse.......................................................Sandra Shipley
Hesther Saloman..........................................Kate Mulgrew
Frank Strang..............................................T. Ryder Smith
Dora Strang...........................................Carolyn McCormick
The Young Horseman and Nugget.......................Lorenzo Pisoni
Harry Dalton............................................Graeme Malcolm
Horses..................................Collin Baja, Tyrone A. Jackson,
......................Spencer Liff, Adesola Osakalumi, Marc Spaulding
Jill Mason.....................................................Anna Camp

7 comments:

katy (aka funny girl) said...

What a fantastic review you've written here, my dear! And I loved watching the clip...I could listen to that accent all day long.

T. said...

Thanks, Katy! It was soooooooooooo amazing.

Just another lawyer said...

You can take the person out of English literature seminars (perhaps a trip to Italy?), but I guess you can never take the English major out of the person! Kudos on a cool review.

T said...

So true, JAL - makes me wish I had taken more theater classes!

Thanks - nice to see you here, as always.

make mine trauma said...

I'm sorry, I never got past that rad poster.

Stephen said...

Good point that what is real may not be realistic.

Toni Brayer MD said...

I saw Equus staring a young Anthony Perkins back in the 70's and it was the first broadway play I had ever seen. It was an amazing experience for me and I never forgot it. I wish I could be in NYC and see this production. Thanks for the review. I am salivating!