Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Neigh Bother

Equus, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday March 3, 2007, 2.30pm.

The woman selling the programmes in the lobby surreptitiously slips a piece of paper inside your correspondent's copy. Opening it up, Dead Kenny finds not a saucy message with the good lady's telephone number but instead the notification that Richard Griffiths will miss today's performances due to illness. Ominous news in that Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe may be getting all the pre-publicity for Equus but Griffiths is the veteran thesp whose role as the psychiatrist is the larger part which to a great extent carries the whole play. Further, Radcliffe knows Griffiths from the Potter films, so his experience and familiarity will have given the young star a comfort buffer in the early showings, thus today will provide the wand-waving wunderkind with his sternest test of nerves since opening night.

And so, the big questions. How does the understudy cope? Colin Haigh is certainly credible as the avuncular shrink questioning the ethics of his profession as he puzzles over the passionate madness of his troubled young patient. He does, however, become increasingly reliant on prompts within his 'case notes' prop to remember his lines - this becomes a little distracting after a while, and the other main difference is that Haigh perhaps lacks the dynamism and projection that a star would have used to provide charge to some of the monologues, during which your dozy hack occasionally drifted. In the circumstances, however, his contribution is heroic.

Secondly, how does Radcliffe fare? Pretty well, in fact, although initially he appears a little nervy and unsettled in his interaction with Griffiths' understudy, this could just be good acting given the unstable state of mind of his character at this point. Yet on the whole he puts in a convincing performance in a demanding role and carries the burden of the audience expectations rather manfully. He also appears genuinely chuffed by the rapturous ovation at the end, bless 'im.

Thirdly, what of the much-reported nudity and sexual content? Well, your correspondent can confirm that Radcliffe and his coltish love interest (Joanna Christie) do indulge in some tastefully-lit full-frontal nudity and we can reassure you that as far as we could tell all the bits were in the right places. It's all played quite clinically and matter-of-factly with minimal eroticism and reports of ten-minute torrid sex scenes are wider of the mark than a Marlon Harewood turn-and-volley. If anything there's more sexual frisson during the scenes where Racliffe pets and grooms his favourite horse Nugget than there is with his tumble in the hay with the stablegirl and that is probably deliberate.

Finally, does the legendary play still hold up over 30 years later in this new production? By and large, yes - it still works as a mystery, and its central theme of different generations coming to terms with each other's sexuality is a universal one that to which many could still relate. Other themes, such as questioning the effectiveness and morality of modern psychiatry and the exploration of what young people are to believe in during uncommonly secular times seem uncannily prescient for a work first staged in 1973.

Less happily, some of the dialogue is updated ('swizz' is replaced by 'con') but other elements of the play that are firmly rooted in the 70s (Radcliffe's character reverts to the 'Milky Bar Kid' theme tune as an avoidance mechanism and there's a pivotal encounter in a porno cinema) are left as they are, meaning the production feels halfway between a period piece and a full re-working. Having Jenny Agutter (who played the stablegirl in Sidney Lumet's 1977 film adaptation) return to the material in the role of a magistrate is a nice touch for the older members of the audience, however.

The play's main coup-de-grace is not so much the nudity but the use of dancers as the ill-fated 'horses'. Wearing magnificent masks and hooves they stalk the smoky, minimal set, adding elements of magic, ritual and atmosphere that the film, by necessity more bound to verisimilitude, could not compete with. The result is a production that fully justifies exhuming the material and one which should provide Radcliffe with a vital bridge between his child and adult acting careers.

More important still, your dazed correspondent won a warm and beaming smile directly from the lovely Jenny Agutter. Eat yer hearts out, gentlemen readers of a certain age!



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