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Daniel Radcliffe and Will Kemp in Equus
(© Alastair Muir)
Excellence can sometimes be present within a setting of general mediocrity. Though the revival of Peter Shaffer's Equus at the Gielgud Theatre in London is misdirected, it nevertheless demonstrates that the play itself remains gripping and that Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe is a talented stage actor of unlimited potential.

First seen in London and then on Broadway in the early 1970s, Equus tells the tale of a teenager whose religious/sexual worship of horses becomes a full-blown mental aberration that leads to a shocking act of violence. Though some may consider the piece dated in a negative way, especially in terms of the psychiatric attitudes and methods portrayed, Equus still has the stuff to play like gangbusters and therefore deserves a revival that's first class in every respect. But while the current production is brilliantly designed by John Napier (who designed the original) and features a cast that looks terrific on paper, it is ineptly helmed by Thea Sharrock.

Though Sharrock has done good work here in terms of blocking and pacing, she has for some unfathomable reason allowed or encouraged the actors to deliver many of their lines in a flat, almost academic tone. Whether or not the stereotype of British reticence is fair, this production does much to reinforce it. For example: When magistrate Hesther Saloman comes to enlist the aid of psychiatrist Martin Dysart on behalf of the tormented Alan Strang, she describes the boy's crime as horrible, yet both Jenny Agutter as Hesther and Richard Griffiths as Dysart sound as if they're discussing a youth who kicked a cat rather than one who blinded six horses with a metal spike.

Griffiths, deservedly acclaimed for his work in The History Boys, almost seems to be walking through Equus. Most of his line readings are downright perfunctory, even in moments that should be fraught with emotion. True, one of the points of the play is that Dysart uses his head much more than his heart, but the actor has gone way too far in this respect. To cite one more example: When Alan's mother visits her severely disturbed son in the hospital and Dysart witnesses her screaming at him and slapping him across the face, he tells her to stop it and get out, but Griffiths delivers these lines as if he's mildly annoyed with the woman rather than furious.

As for Radcliffe, he deserves enormous credit not only for giving a focused, disciplined performance in the face of media frenzy over his casting and his extended nude scene in the play's second act, but also for doing such a good job with no apparent help from Sharrock. Though he could certainly go further in communicating Alan's burning passion and deep pain, the 17-year-old actor acquits himself admirably under adverse conditions. Given his major stardom and the fact that Equus is for all intents and purposes Radcliffe's stage debut, it's surprising that a top-flight director wasn't engaged to guide him and the rest of the cast.

All things considered, the other members of the company fare pretty well. Among the standouts: Joanna Christie is lovely and genuine as Jill, the innocent catalyst for Alan's wild rampage; Will Kemp is stalwart as Nugget, the main object of the boy's worship, and charismatic as the Young Horseman in Act I; Colin Haigh is a strong, authentic presence as stable owner Harry Dalton; and Gabrielle Reidy and Jonathan Cullen are basically fine as Alan's parents, though even they sometimes seem disconnected from the text.

Napier's superb set design calls to mind a section of a Greek amphitheater, but with slatted wooded supports (resembling stable doors) rather than Doric columns. Some of the audience members are seated on stage, but not at floor level; they're perched just above and behind the set, observing the action like spectators in a Roman coliseum.

On the minus side, David Hersey's lighting was marred by several obviously tardy cues at the performance I attended, and the lack of a full blackout after Dysart's final monologue ends the show on a sloppy, amateurish note. (No doubt some light remains in order to help Griffiths negotiate his way off stage before returning for the curtain call, but couldn't some other solution have been found?)

In view of this production's huge success at the box office, it's almost a foregone conclusion that it will someday make its way to New York, presumably with the same stars working under the same director. One can only hope that, with or without Sharrock's help, the stars and their colleagues will learn to let themselves go and thereby give Equus its full due on Broadway.

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