Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hung Like a Horse

When it came out in the early 70s, Equus was pretty cool. Though it was hardly the most avant-garde piece of theatre available, it brought a lot of very interesting avant-garde theatre tactics to the mainstream, taking huge risks, drawing on several different sorts of Japanese theatre, working with masks, creating a sense of ritual, exhibiting a (comparative) freedom with staging sexual bodies, etc. It was a sort of middle-browed avant-garde, but to my mind, a fairly compelling version, borne out of the cultural moment of its production.

However, the playwright, Peter Shaffer, made an interesting choice in the way he chose to publish his play. Instead of keeping his text to a minimum, and preserving the same sort of openness that the first director was able to bring to that exciting theatrical moment, Shaffer scripted in virtually all of the design and directing choices of that first production, which has meant, effectively, that most subsequent productions have been little more than mere mimicry, an homage to a very alive theatrical moment that is now over thirty years past.

In some ways, this scenario is the perfect one for young Daniel Radcliffe's stage debut, a scenario whose theatricality is almost a repetitive as film, whose actorly risk is tempered by three decades of success, and where the primary theatrical excitement is a sort of celebritized spectacle crafted for a big, ornate West End performance space.

Don't get me wrong, Radcliffe is actually pretty good, especially if you can get past his "petulant face" which he exhibits in every Harry Potter film. You know the one, body stiff, leaning slightly forward, arms ramrod straight down his sides, ending in balled up fists, a hard little anger on his face. It's how he started the performance I saw, but it was better than Richard Griffiths' slow start (for such a seasoned stage vet, I was surprised to see that it took the entire first act for Griffiths to develop enough pacing on his lines to sound like he wasn't still learning them).

But most in the audience weren't there for the acting, or the theatricality, or the spectacle of technically slick theatre. Most were there for what my students lovingly called "Harry Potter's junk." To illustrate. The class I went with included ten young ladies and one young man, all hetero to my knowledge. My ticket was several seats away from theirs, and I sat between, on one side, a teenage girl and her doting parents, and on the other, two college age American women. Over 50% in attendance were probably women between the ages of 15 and 30. In the first act, when Alan Strang (you know, the character played by Radcliffe) first acts out the events that form the crisis of the play, he narrates taking his clothes off, and does indeed take off his shirt. The psychiatrists ask, "You took off all of your clothes?" and everyone in that damn theatre held their breath and leaned forward. Oh I was no exception, except that I noticed it as it happened, and then remembered quickly that the full frontal is not until the second act.

That second act was better theatre all around--Radcliffe had fewer opportunities for Petulant Face, and Griffiths hits his stride. Joanna Christie, who plays Jill Mason, Strang's love interest, was a compelling presence as well, and she has more stage time. And of course, the climactic scene, with Strang and Mason trying to consummate their relationship, sustained real dramatic tension, which was almost certainly heightened by the stifled glee of hundreds of young ladies checking out that seventeen-year-old body.

To give the goods: One of my students who brought opera glasses says that the tackle in question is perfectly acceptable, but that the bottom is the main draw. For 17, he is in great physical shape. I was personally surprised that any hetero seventeen-year-old (no matter how professional and/or jaded), naked and in that close proximity to an attractive naked woman (part of the scene involves the couple at the threshhold of genital intercourse) could stifle an erection, but good for him, I guess.

Here's the thing. I had hoped that the theatrical excitement of the original production would have held some force here in this hyped production thirty years later, but all I could think of as I watched that young actor working so hard on stage, completely in the buff was, "He's got to be cold." Because for all its roots in a collaborative, commmunal kind of theatrical event, this production of Equus, with its dry-ice effects, its cavernous proscenium space, its fancy lighting gimmicks, and its careerist celebrity star felt, well, cold.

I'm thinking about an article about middle-browing the avant garde with this play (both the original and this most recent productions), and so I've got a more thinking to do about it, but for now, my take on it was that it was a highly, even surprisingly, competent theatrical piece, a slicked up, somewhat dehumanized and rote version of a play that once stood for the best in mainstream theatrical creativity.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a guy so can't say for certain, but despite him saying that it no longer bothers him to take his clothes off in front of other people, I think I would be very embarrassed to do so, and thus wouldn't "rise" to the occasion, so to speak.

Regarding your comment about how it felt more dehumanized, I thought otherwise. I thought that Griffiths made his character more fatherly like, as opposed to the more homo-erotic feelings I understand older versions had. Dan portrayed the young confused teenager perfectly as well. They made a very good team, albeit I think I would have like to have seen Branagh in the role as originally planned.

Sisyphus said...

I've been getting the feeling that with the rising costs of putting on West End or Broadway productions, combined with the "touristization" of those areas (patent pending on that word), nothing very avant-garde or interesting has happened on those stages for a while now. In fact they may be more about selling you a safe sense of avant-garde-ness to be selfcongratulatory about than anything else. That said, it can still be a very fun experience. So can snickering at your title --- heh!

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