September 15, 2008

The Strange Story of Alan Strang

Warning: Biased, disorganized, spoiler-ish, and very long Equus review straight ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

Crossposted from Nitpicky.org

Much ado has been made over the theater debut of Daniel Radcliffe, boy wizard Harry Potter to most of the world and heartthrob to its female population. In 2007, he bagged the role of Alan Strang, a disturbed 17-year-old who blinded six horses in Peter Shaffer's Equus. Many were both excited and apprehensive about his decision to step out of Harry's shadow, but what really had tongues wagging was his nude scene in the play. Frankly, that particular scene made me curious as well, and I unflinchingly laid down a pretty penny for a mezzanine seat during the play's September 13 preview performance. It was money well spent.

Are the horses silent now, Alan?**

Peter Shaffer penned Equus after hearing a disturbing bit of news from his friend. The story was about a local stable boy who was arrested for blinding the horses. The story took all of five minutes to tell, but its details chilled Shaffer and inspired him to write the play. No one knows if the true story is as dramatic as the events in the play, not even Shaffer, whose friend passed away before he (Shaffer) could completely verify all the information.*

Equus is mainly the story of Alan Strang, who instead of being sent to prison for his deed was sent to the care of Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist who is questioning his profession and the good it does for people; he is also the play's storyteller. Dysart was played with unbelievable ease and sympathy by Richard Griffiths, Uncle Vernon to Harry Potter. Alan and Dysart get off to a fairly rocky start, with Alan refusing to cooperate and bursting into song when he is spoken to--mostly commercial jingles. Gradually, Dysart earns his trust and he begins to respond more, with Alan relating the events that led, not just to the blinding, but to the way he is. We also learn about Dysart's feelings about his work and he unwittingly opens up parts of himself to Alan.

We discover that Alan has had a fascination for horses since he was a boy, and has experienced a conflicted childhood brought about by his parents' opposing religious beliefs. We don't know when or why exactly Alan substituted horses as figures of worship, but we see that he is in awe of their power and beauty, elevating them to the level of a god. He is soon introduced to the local stable by a girl he met at the store where he worked. Working at the stable leads him to close contact with horses, and this place further strengthens the horses' spell over Alan.

Disoriented

The first act of the play ended powerfully. I hadn't known what to expect coming into the theater, but it certainly wasn't the feeling of---let's just call it what it is--awe, and dread for what was to follow. The end of the performance, which consisted of Dysart's monologue, had my sisters in tears and me riveted; Griffiths made me see the doctor's own conflict, his disappointment with his own life, and his envy for Alan's passion. Certainly a monologue which made me wish I had already found my own passion, though nothing like as extreme as Alan's.

The mention of Equus automatically makes people think that a.) it's a vehicle for Daniel Radcliffe's "grown-up" status which will allow him to stop being seen as That Potter Boy and that b.) it's a story about a boy who fiddles inappropriately with horses. I might agree with the first point--more on that later--but not with the second one. Alan Strang is normally seen as a boy with a sexual passion for horses, which I didn't see; it seemed more to me as though he was filling a gap in his spiritual and emotional makeup, and that he worshipped horses rather than lusted for them.

Dysart had observed that his role as a psychiatrist was to help disturbed young people and make them "normal" again, "acceptable" to society. He questions whether what he is doing actually helps people in the first place. The good doctor has a lot to get off his chest and the way the play is written, it's as if the events involving his sessions with Alan are still so clear that he is able to vividly retell every incident, with him seamlessly slipping into each scene after narrating his thoughts and each detail to the audience.

It may be unnecessary to point out that the acting in this play was superb. The girl who played Jill was just the right level of perky; Alan's parents were both haunted by what happened to their son, but they were a perfectly normal husband and wife. The men who played the horses were particularly stunning; their movements were perfect and the wire masks were chilling. Even if Griffiths or Daniel did not star in the play, though, the play would still be equally chilling.

Ultimately, Equus left me wrung-out--in a very good way. Don't take that to mean that the play was a complete bummer; it had plenty of light-hearted moments, with most of them surprisingly taking place with Alan, who is, despite his horse-blinding ways, a truly sympathetic character. I'd like to say that Equus stresses the importance of proper sexual education and religious instruction, that it says there may be no way to salvage a damaged mind and soul, or that it cries out for people to be free and unencumbered by guilt and societal pressure, but that would be too simplistic. Although they are part of it as well.

Mischief managed

Like I mentioned, the draw of Daniel Radcliffe was what prompted me to watch Equus. When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer`s Stone first came out in theaters years ago, I was excited to see the boy playing Harry Potter, simply because he was so adorable-looking and I wondered if he could do the book justice. When I saw the movie, I was disappointed by his acting, but I figured he would improve with time, which he thankfully did. Anyone who isn't impressed by him would be shocked by his turn in Equus. His Alan Strang was socially awkward, distrustful, obviously confused, and, well, tortured, but you could see at the same time that he can be a nice boy-albeit one with a tenuous grip on reality and his sanity. I couldn't help occasionally hearing Harry in his voice, however, especially when he was recounting to Dysart the feeling that he was being pierced through his stomach by the force of his god-slave. Dysart inquires, "Who?" and Alan howls gut-wrenchingly, "You know who!" which caused me and my sister to exchange glances; whether or not that was a nod to, um, You-Know-Who, we have no idea.

Oh yeah, the nude scene? Daniel said in the show's feature article in Playbill, "Horse Sense," that by the time the nude scene rolled around, audiences would be completely in the thrall of the story that any prurient thoughts would have vanished. And how right he was, though I will confess that there was a tiny voice in my head that said, 'OMG here comes the naked part!' Once it was playing out, however, it becomes such a natural part of the story that I was barely aware of the nudity. (Honest.)

I had hoped for a chance to shake his hand at the stage door and tell him how truly amazing he was and that I now have a respect for him that goes way beyond screaming about how cute he is, but as expected, there was a mad throng waiting outside. We were ten feet deep in people; I didn't even catch a glimpse of him, just of a black Escalade spiriting him away from Broadhurst Theater. The other people surrounding us were talking about him, of course, with one girl remarking, "He's so small, he's only 5'6", isn't that cute?" Daniel may be shorter than all his castmates and he may have been effortlessly carried around onstage, but with his acting skills and the way he can bring characters to life---yep, Harry Potter included--he now looks larger than life to me.

* information from "Horse Sense," Playbill
** Titled nicked from Cez

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