I. Watched. Equus! [To the tune of “This! Is! Spartaaaaaaaaaa!” With less “aaaaa”, I grant you, for “Equus” ends with “us”.]
I went with two friends who had not read the play before. I sold them on the idea with “Daniel Radcliffe naked!” Which, you know, was not at all false advertising, since technically Daniel Radcliffe did get naked, even though really, really, it was Alan Strang naked before us on stage, Alan Strang exposed to our pitilessly pitying gazes.
In many ways, having a fucking famous barely legal almost-still-a-child actor play the role was an annoying distraction. I (brace yourselves! for! a story! of! My! Life!) was sixteen when I first read Peter Shaffer‘s Five Finger Excercise, and I was still sixteen when I read his Equus. I had an almost-boyfriend, then. I adored him from nearby. I could tell you stuff, but let’s limit it to: I read fiction, and he did not. It was a glorious argument, one we had many, many times. Courtship at sixteen is cute.
Me: Fiction can explore depths of the human psyche without entering into professional and literary vulturistic cannibalism.
Him: Fiction is shit. I’ll prove it!
He lent me his dad’s copy of Equus. Well, it had three plays in it, but Equus was what I was supposed to read.
Him: Read that. You’ll see what I mean. Fiction is sick.
I wonder, now, if he ever read Lolita. I wonder if he went back to fiction, and said, Sickness is real. Tears are real. Smiles are true. I have them all in my life, and I shall have them in my literature.
I read it. I loved it.
I’ll be honest: I pictured my almost-boyfriend as Alan Strang. Thin. Gentle. Soft for the most part, but extraordinarily sensitive to what could hurt you, or soothe you. And willing to initiate both. Martin Dysart passed me by – it took me years to see that the play could be read as a tragedy. Strang’s tragedy, Dysart’s failing. I never realised the importance of Worship, and what Dysart thought he was taking away.
My almost-boyfriend, in time, became my boyfriend. And in time, my ex-boyfriend, and my friend. And now we have not spoken to each other for… a year, it must be. I no longer see Alan Strang in him. I no longer see him in Alan Strang. I know them both better.
But. On Friday, the 18th of May, 2007, three women paid fifty pounds each for Dress Circle seats to watch Equus. At least one of us had decided that she would drink herself to a sorry grave if Daniel Radcliffe messed up this important role. To be the priest of Equus, only begotten son of Fleckwus.
Thea Sharrock directs this revival. I’ve never considered doing anything for the stage – certainly I’m not very good on or off it. I resigned myself willingly and eagerly to the role of “person in audience who might cry if something sad happens”. And so perhaps it should be taken lightly that I say, I would have directed Equus slow. Alan Strang would have been passively sullen. His hostility would have been muted and rigid, to contrast with his electric moments with Equus/Nugget. His moments of attack would be sharp, but again quiet. Dysart would be tired. Always tired, save when he was with Strang, when he would be calm, tranquil, dismissive – a facade over that tiredness.
Thea Sharrock’s vision was brisk. Or perhaps the word I am looking for is energetic. Under her direction, Richard Griffith’s Dysart is a caustic, caring man, whose emotional tiredness has not yet affected his physical efficiency. I suspect almost all of the foundation for the character in this production comes from “Doctor and Doctor Mac Brisk”, as opposed to, “I gave her the same thing: antiseptic proficiency” – which is not really the same thing at all, at all. This Dysart speaks quickly, carelessly, drawlingly. He rarely slows, rarely crawls. (My Dysart crawls.)
Under Sharrock, Radcliffe’s Strang is an actively defensive, defensively hostile seventeen year old. It jarred very severely with how I read things, and it jarred a great deal during his moments of attack/defence with Dysart. When you attack – and when you defend – actively, you speak quicker than your opponent, you raise your voice above his. You move your body to loom over his. Faced with Doctor MacBrisk, Alan Strang has a quickness – speed – of speech that is jarring for a non-English person, unused to normal quick British accents. I suspect that the native speakers in the audience did not find that quickness out of the ordinary. In fact, I bet they found it energising, and certainly it was very funny, when it needed to be.
Contrasted with these quick, hard, callous interactions, Strang’s moment with Equus are poetry in motion. There were six of them – men on raised platform-heels shaped like large hooves. They wore silver cage-masks shaped like horses heads. They had red eyes. They writhed. They were horses, not men, and their sensuality – and their tenderness with Strang – was beautiful in the extreme. Strang’s ritual – his worship – his betrayal by falling to lust – his fear – his attack – they are beautiful. They rend the heart. They must have been extremely physically demanding performances, for all concerned.
And in that climactic scene where Strang runs insanely around the stables, leaping to reach at their eyes, before collapsing so that Dysart – the ghost in the reenactment, the enactment, can come and cover his nakedness and hold him till he sleeps, one can find tragedy. Dysart shall take from him his worship. So Dysart fears. Dysart is the priest of normality, Strang the priest of Equus. And Strang is not up to his duties, so Dysart shall take them from him.
Or perhaps not? Perhaps the boy grows, and finds, as so many priests who are allowed to marry, that he can have both worlds, so long as he gives up a little of both? Perhaps he learns to live in the one and not mind the loss of the other? Not all celibate priests are unhappy sexual stalkers.