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First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 21 April 2008

The media hype has been in overdrive in recent weeks and last night the stars, the cameras and the autograph hunters were out in force at the Gielgud to witness Daniel Radcliffe, otherwise known as Harry Potter, in his first major West End stage role. Playing disturbed stable-hand Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, the role is a brave debut for Radcliffe and an abrupt departure from his screen alias. Caroline Bishop went to see him make the transformation…

Sparked by a gruesome story he had heard about a teenager who blinded six horses with a hoof-pick, Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus has this crime at its core. From this initial idea, Shaffer developed a story about what might drive a young man to commit such a shocking act, as drawn out by his psychiatrist over a period of time in a psychiatric hospital.

Radcliffe plays 17-year-old Alan Strang, a loner and an only child, whose seemingly innocent love of horses was indulged when he got a weekend job at the local stables. Richard Griffiths is Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist asked by magistrate and friend Hesther Saloman (Jenny Agutter) to help Strang, after she defended his unfathomable crime in court.

Directed by young director of the moment Thea Sharrock (A Voyage Round My Father, Heroes), this new production, the first in the West End for over 30 years, moves at a brisk pace and is staged in such a way that Strang and Dysart are constantly on stage, even if they are not participating in the current scene. John Napier, who designed the original West End production, returns for this one and has designed an appropriately eerie set. Based, he says in a programme note, on a building he knows of where the public could watch dissections, a curved balcony has been installed above the Gielgud stage so the play is performed almost in the round, with members of the audience looking down on Strang from above, as Dysart dissects his mind. On floor level around the stage are stable doors, from where Napier’s highly stylised horses emerge, played by humans wearing horse heads of twisted metal. Led by dancer Will Kemp, playing Strang’s favourite horse Nugget, their equine forms are ominous, powerful and most importantly, believable, helped by Gregory Clarke’s sound.

As Shaffer seeks an explanation for the act that sparked this play, we see the pent-up anger of Strang gradually give way to Griffiths’s no-nonsense – and increasingly self-doubting – Dysart. As Strang begins to let Dysart into his head, Radcliffe acts out the scenes Strang describes that led up to the night of his crime. Imbued with a disturbing mixture of religious and sexual passion, teenage angst and parental influence, Strang comes to worship horses with such intensity that Dysart, bored by life and locked in a passionless marriage, comes to almost envy him.

Much has been made of the fact that Radcliffe’s role involves him appearing nude on stage. As the play builds to its shocking denouement this he does, along with Joanna Christie’s Jill Mason, the stable girl who offers Strang his first sexual experience, thus provoking the crime when Strang fails to deliver sexually. Dwelling on the nudity though, is besides the point. Whether it involved nudity or not, in choosing such a dark, disturbing and powerful play as his first major foray into theatre, Radcliffe has revealed bravery and ambition that could see him act on into the adult world long after his alter-ego has been consigned to cinematic history. em>CB


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