Those of you who read this blog occasionally might remember that the first time I saw the recent West End production of Equus, on the first preview night, it had a profound and disturbing effect on me which took several days to shake off. Saturday saw the last performance and I was there.
At the end of the performance Richard Griffiths (Martin Dysart) sushed the standing ovation half-way through and made a short but unsentimental speech of thanks to the audience on behalf of the cast and crew. In the course of that speech he remarked how unlike many productions he has been involved with which are set in stone after the press night, this one had evolved and changed right up to the final performance. Having seen the first and last public performances this was mightily evident. This last performance was something of a tour de force and the emotional and dramatic impact of the play had been ramped up by orders of magnitude since the previews. None of the changes were large but there were so many small tweaks that the overall impression was of a huge difference.
The first performance I saw had two slightly disappointing elements for me. The scene at the end of the first half involves Alan Strang (Radcliffe) riding a horse, naked through a field in the middle of the night to the point of a quasi-mystical orgasm. In the first preview, this intensely powerful scene was lacking something, it seemed to be over too quickly, not giving the audience time to become properly aware and then to react to the building sexual tension in what they were witnessing. By the time of this last performance the scene had been tweaked so that the building monologue seemed to take more time and build more slowly to a, therefore, more powerful crescendo. Daniel Radcliffe too, in the preview performance was, not reserved, but his body and voice portrayed more a continuation of the anger that has been brewing in Alan Strang through the first half and not so much the sexual ecstasy required in that scene. In the final performance Radcliffe’s voice and body were unmistakably those of someone in the throws of sexual excitement and orgasm. Where, before, the end of the first half had been dramatic and interesting, it had evolved into an unforgettable, disturbing and passionate moment of theatre.
The second slightly disappointing aspect of the first performance I saw was Richard Griffith’s interpretation of the anguish of the psychiatrist. Griffith’s is always a superb naturalistic actor but his slightly off-hand and easy approach to Dysart’s central tension seemed, just a little, to play down the real torment of a soul which is present in the text. After seeing the first performance I was happy to write this disappointment off as a result of unwilling comparisons with the film in which Richard Burton in the same role sweats, shouts, weeps and rages all direct to camera - clearly a level of intensity not available to the stage actor. However, in this last performance, Griffiths seemed to have found much more of a voice for the sheer agony of Dysart’s position. His final monologue, which closes the play, was a revelation as he speaks of how, now he has set Strang on the road to recovery, he can feel the ‘bit’ of Equus’ bridle in his own mouth and he mimes the pain of it as it breaks up his ability to speak.
Clearly in a last-night performance every stop is going to be pulled out and in this instance, not only did that make for an intensely powerful experience for the audience, it demonstrated a cast of actors at the very top of their game and giving everything they have to the performance. The first time I saw Equus I would have said it was a fantastic performance of a fantastic text, Radcliffe and Griffiths were very, very good in that first preview. In this last performance, the text and the ’performance’ were submerged completely into the experience of a young man’s mental breakdown and healing and a psychiatrist’s torment: Radcliffe and Griffiths were beyond good, their combined and complimentary skills took this last performance to superlative level.
PS. In fact, this is unlikely to be the last that this blog hears of Equus the play. Negotiations whir, contracts flurry... and one day I shall be proudly talking about another project related to Equus.