Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: "Equus"

Years ago, when I was in high school deep enough inside the Bible belt the buckle sometimes seemed like it was bumping my head, there were rumors of a play, titled Equus. It was said to be very shocking, with hints of bestiality. Naturally, the play dealt with no such thing. Later, I heard the album when working at a radio station -- Richard Burton's amazing voice intercut with music. Frankly, the monologues mesmerized me. Eventually, I read the play, saw the (not really successful) movie. It was brilliant. And of course as probably most of the known world knows by now, Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame made his West End, then Broadway debut in the play, which required of him full frontal nudity.

I've decided to make Equus my entry in the AW Book Review Blog chain, a beloved work that moved me deeply. Sadly, I've never yet seen it performed on stage. Interestingly, the two major Broadway runs have focused on different leads.

The play, according to the author, was inspired by a half-remembered tale related by a friend of a terrible crime. Did it in fact happen? We don't know. Well, I don't know. But at its heart the work centers around Dr. Dysart, an overworked psychiatrist, and Alan Strang, a "weird" boy who has committed a terrible act -- and who pretty clearly is a kind of paranoid schizophrenic. Potentially, this might at least be as riveting as Sybil. Actually, it is more. Far more.

What we see is not simply the dissection of a boy with a serious mental illness, but a crisis of faith by Dr. Dysart -- as he puts it, a priest for the god of "Normal." The normal is healthy smile in a child's eyes says one character, but Dysart points out it is also the dead stare in a million adults. Dysart would hope to heal the children in his care, to make of them whole and passionate human beings. What he creates instead are ghosts. Fragments of people, bereft of soul and heart. Yet Alan, who has somehow forged a series of images and ideas and events into a weird religion wherein God is enslaved in the flesh of horses "for the sins of the world", Alan clearly wishes to be helped, desires to be something other than the tortured youngster he has become. Dysart is more skeptical. This is territory he knows too well.

One of the most powerful monologues in the work has a counterpoint with one of the most incredible visual images. Alan recounts to the doctor his most sacred ritual -- taking Equus the Slavegod out at night, riding him with a bit in each of their mouths. It is a moment of mad ecstasy like something from The Bacchae. It shakes Dysart deeply, a man with what he sees as a safe (i.e. impotent) fascination with ancient Greece and her legends. He draws the parallel between the two of them. One sits safe at him, gazing at excellent photographs of ancient potter depicting centaurs. The other, sucking the sweat from the hairy cheek of his God, trying to turn into one. Which of the two is more alive? Which has tasted greater passion?

And the bitter truth? Each longs to trade places with the other. Or at least to become what they believe the other might be. No easy answers in this play, just soul-wrenching questions to which each of us must find our own replies.


The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

Equus, hauntingly thought provoking. I’m sold. Good review.

C R Ward said...

Very interesting review. I vaguely remember seeing at least part of one of the movie versions of this many years ago but your review makes me want to search for a copy of the play itself.

Well done!

Magnus Greel said...

"The normal is healthy smile in a child's eyes says one character, but Dysart points out it is also the dead stare in a million adults." I like this a lot. In that decade of 1965-1975, films would look into the face of comlpicated, disturbing subjects, and would question what the majority accepts without thinking as the only right way to think and be.

I rented the R Burton film a couple years ago. I need to see it again. What's the best version on VHS or disc?

Zahir Blue said...

Honestly, I haven't seen the film on DVD so I cannot answer your question. Sorry.

veinglory said...

It is sad that discussions of Equus often revolving around whether or not one is "shocked" rather than the story. On the modern scale of things, you are right, the shock factor is gone--but the story of the relationship/interaction is as powerful as ever.

Aimee Laine said...

Never heard of it and had no idea it was the reason for Daniel's "scandalous" display. ;) I'm quite intrigued now though!