PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Equus — The Stable and the Unstable

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26 Sep 2008

Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Griffiths, Kate Mulgrew, Anna Camp, Lorenzo Pisoni, T. Ryder Smith, Carolyn McCormick, Sandra Shipley and Peter Shaffer with Thea Sharrock.
Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Griffiths, Kate Mulgrew, Anna Camp, Lorenzo Pisoni, T. Ryder Smith, Carolyn McCormick, Sandra Shipley and Peter Shaffer with Thea Sharrock.
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
Equus, which is Latin for "horse," and Peter Shaffer, for "serious theatre," stampeded back to Broadway Sept. 25 on the heels of hype with Harry Potter, scruffied-up and unspectacled, in the saddle and Uncle Vernon as the shrink who straightens him out.

"It's great to be back at the Broadhurst," the 82-year-old playwright remarked on entering the theatre — the same theatre where his other Tony-winning triumph, Amadeus, took off. Plainly, Shaffer was pleased to be at the center of this theatrical storm brought on by employing players from the hugely popular Potter film series.

"Richard Griffiths and, of course, Daniel [Radcliffe] have bonded, haven't they?" he beamed. "I think it's obvious on stage." Five films in a row and a sixth due out next July will do that to actors, and it's fortunate that these two have had that prior history since Shaffer's story is far stranger and darker than J. K. Rowling's wizardry.

It's based on fact, in fact, Shaffer points out in a program note Playbill has reprinted from the play's original London premiere in 1973. He relays how, during a drive in the country with a journalist friend two years earlier, they happened to pass a horse stable, reminding the friend of a horror story he had heard at a recent dinner party.

It concerned the trial of a troubled youth who'd gone berserk and blinded a stableful of horses. Shaffer filled in the gaping blanks with electrifying theatre. In one corner is the passionately unhinged young man, Alan Strang, who at first speaks only in musical jingles; in the opposite corner is a burnt-out shell of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who begins to envy the boy's passion. As he sadly assesses, "Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created."

In the original 1974 Broadway production, directed by a Tony-winning John Dexter, it was the boy's play, and Peter Firth was the award contender for Leading Actor rather than Anthony Hopkins, who movingly advanced the case of the stymied shrink. In this edition helmed by a 30-year-old rising star of British theatre, Thea Sharrock, it's the internal angst of the psychiatrist that reaches the audience.

Interestingly, Griffiths had to be talked into taking on the role. He too is making a sentimental return to the Broadhurst, where he last held forth in Tony-winning form as the life-teaching schoolmaster of The History Boys — and, he explained, "I didn't want to come back to Broadway with something that'd disappoint people."

An expert at the heartfelt throwaway, Griffiths has ample opportunity to exercise his skill and display vulnerability. "I think that's the point. What Dysart does is infuse the text with feeling. There's this huge intellectual story, and underneath it are wild, riotous feelings. He's got them as well as the boy. That's what happens in the play."

It was Griffiths who suggested Radcliffe take a look at "A Clockwork Orange" for additional character research, and the 19-year-old actor obliged —and benefitted.

"Initially," Radcliffe said, "it was very helpful because of the scene early on where Malcolm McDowell is singing 'Singin' in the Rain' while he's kicking a guy half to death — because my character, Alan, comes in and sings the jingles. I wanted it to be that kind of intense aggression, masked by songs. That was a very good point of reference. But also, as I watched the film, it became apparent that the stories are similar. In essence, thematically, it's just about society taking away that which makes an individual an individual in order to make him fit into that society."

The teamwork and trust between the two actors got them across what was for both of them pretty dicey, no-net turf. "Working with Richard is fantastic," the lad relayed. "He's brilliant — a real force of a man and just the nicest guy in the world."

Sporting what looked like his first attempt at a beard, young Radcliffe ran the press gauntlet at the Chelsea Piers after-party in the easy stride of a seasoned campaigner.

When one reporter teasingly inquired if he was "developing a special relationship" with Lorenzo Pisoni, who plays the horse he has a hot 'n' heavy affinity for, Radcliffe responded in kind: "Ah, yes, we're getting along very well indeed. I've written really, really, deeply sexual things on the card I gave him on opening night. He's truly a remarkable man, and, if I was gay or female, I would really go for him."


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