Before seeing Equus at the Geilgud Theatre in London two weeks ago, my only connection to Peter Shaffer’s play was Sydney Lumet’s 1977 film production starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth. I have no memory of the film, but I remember liking the story immensely. Watching this new production of the famous play is a revelation, not least of which because its striking gravitas, staging, and performances are reminders of the theatre’s potential for profound effect. If Equus does indeed make it to Broadway (it first premiered here in 1974, starring Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth), it will shame much of the waste, like David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, that has stunk up our theatre district in recent months.
Sources more reliable than Wikipedia confirm that this new production’s visual elucidation of a young man’s sexual awakening is not at all novel, but I can’t imagine any production of the show, past or present, realizing the freakish tonal magnetism Equus’s new cast and crew are able to rouse. The center of the stage suggests a totemic structure not unlike Stonehenge—a nexus or portal between disparate psychological and spatial realms where the psychologist’s chamber bleeds into young Alan’s (Daniel Radcliffe) memories of his experiences inside a nearby farm where he blinded a stable full of horses. The reason why Alan commits this crime becomes a journey for everyone, from the boy to the psychologist, Martin (Richard Griffiths), who gives him the permission he needs to divulge his memories.
That the space where Alan is psychoanalyzed blends into the space where his memories reside is apt given the nature of his torture, which is rooted in a perpetual sense of metamorphosis. Just as the play understands adolescence in ritualistic terms, it views adulthood as something of a divergence from the freedom of youthful sexual discovery. Alan’s sexual agency is a fierce thing, creating a maelstrom of panic that overwhelms all of the play’s characters, most dramatically the men in his life. Though he goes to the psychologist to be diagnosed—studied and prodded because of what he did to the horses—he ends up diagnosing his psychologist. Equus is a whiplash of role reversals, leaving the audience wondering who’s studying who.
In a great monologue by the portly Griffiths it is revealed that his character has not slept with his wife in some time, possibly because of the shame associated with his low sperm count, though my friend Dave joked that the man’s embarrassment probably has something to do with his inability to reach his penis. Anyway, the persistence with which Martin asks Alan to explain the night he blinded the horses is not the persistence of a psychologist wanting to learn about a patient and assist in their healing but a mode of redressing pent-up resentments. On the surface, Alan may seem perverse, but the liberty with which he connects with his horses inspires something of a jealous awe in everyone around him.
This idea of a grownup man trapped in a state of arrested development will resurface again when Alan’s father catches him and his little girlfriend watching a smutty movie inside a theater. Father pulls son out of the theater, hypocritically making the boy feel shame for the same pleasure he was seeking, which he subsequently and embarrassingly attempts to cover up by explaining that he was at the theater to discuss business with the manager. Before the final thrilling explosion of symbolist energy that closes the show, the father tells Martin about the time he caught Alan worshipping at the altar of Equus, his favorite horse but also something of a spiritual deity, and you get a sense again of an adult longing for that freedom of guiltless expression that youth relishes.
Theoretically and visually, Equus is a dense monster of a play, emphatically and vibrantly conceived, always teetering on that precarious edge between the ridiculous and the sublime. It is a work with many hands, most forcibly a masturbatory one, and its truths must be reached through a fabulous tangle of metaphors. Ingeniously and complicatedly homoerotic, Equus is the story of a boy and his cock, symbolized by a horse whose reins are not just the means by which his master achieves release but also the constraints placed on him by society.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.