Daniel Radcliffe took to the stage in a successful 2007 West End production of the playAriana Tepes-Leonardi

Peter Skidmore, Director:

When I mention to people I’m directing Equus, one reaction seems to be predominant – that’s the one where Harry Potter has sex with a horse. Right. Let’s put this straight. Daniel Radcliffe did famously, and to critical acclaim, portray the role of Alan Strang, and yes, this requires nudity. It is true that some of the play’s themes draw on a sensual attraction towards horses. But at no point, and I want to make this really clear, does Alan have sex with a horse. I’m sorry. It just doesn’t happen, at least not explicitly. For audience members only out to get their fix of equine porn, it’ll be disappointing. Just saying.

That’s not to say the play doesn’t deal with some very dark and taboo subject matter. It was shockingly controversial when first performed in 1973, due in no small part to its graphic descriptions of a confused sexuality and its paganistic rejection of modern society, not to mention its famously disturbing and violent finale. It’s the task of any production team taking on Equus to ensure that this controversy and shock value is maintained without it losing its edge, and this means devising new ways to approach and present the notorious content.

The play revolves around the construction of a complex and primal theology by Alan, whereby he believes that horses are divine representatives through which he can escape his humdrum and oppressive existence. Throughout, connections are made to early pagan religion and as such, Alan’s world is populated by bizarre creatures and elaborate rituals. The violent and sexual aspects of the play can be framed within this ritualisation, and so the show is able to portray a frightening, but also alluring, fantasy.

So how do we bring this imagined world to life within the confines of the stage? Firstly, we can relate Alan’s beliefs to our society’s own uneasy memories of a forgotten primal culture. Our overarching aesthetic for the production is one drawing on pre-Christian British traditions, namely those of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and even earlier cultures.

Whether through invasions or suppression by institutionalised religion, these pagan customs have become lost from the collective folk consciousness, perfectly emulating the conflicts Alan faces when modern society begins to encroach on his beliefs.

Thus we’re building a stone circle on the stage, through which the characters will dart and hide, and at the centre of which the famous ritual scene will be performed. The horses, as specified in the script, will be highly stylised: actors in masks based on Celtic pagan designs represent the animals as magnificent, godlike creatures. Finally, we have recruited an extensive chorus who will act as personifications of Alan’s religion itself, so vivid that it becomes a living force with real desires and fears. Through choral music based on ancient British themes, they will accentuate and give colour to a vibrant world that, by the finale, the audience should envy.

The question remains, however, of how to actually represent the violent scenes onstage. Naturalistic depictions work very well – for instance I have seen fake blood used to fantastic effect on the ADC stage, and Cambridge shows are lucky enough to often have professional-quality fight choreographers devise incredibly realistic sequences. However, the magic of Equus lies in its stylisation. The horses are not naturalistic; they are abstract, and so too should be the depictions of violence. Through intense physical workshops in which we have explored representations of extreme pain and aggression, we have devised mechanisms by which events become even more disturbing than if they were realistically played out. I don’t want to give too much away, but we’ve all come out of them feeling a bit distressed.

Equus is a unique amalgamation of theatre – part psychological thriller, part high classical tragedy, part social commentary. But, at heart, it is a fantasy. It is a world to which an audience can escape, which has both wondrous and terrifying aspects, and offers an alternative from the prison of modern life. And, very importantly, it has no horse sex. Maybe.

Jonah Hauer-King, playing Alan Strang:

It seems that the first thing that everybody associates with Equus is nudity; it certainly appears to be the aspect of the play that provokes the most interest and curiosity amongst those who know little about it.

On the one hand, this is warranted; the appearance of the 17 year old Alan Strang stark naked on stage is undoubtedly a powerful image, and a necessary and significant part of the play.

However, it is worth asking why Equus is so overwhelmingly associated with this comparatively short scene.

The play reached new levels of notoriety with Thea Sharrock’s 2007 production, starring Daniel Radcliffe and the late Richard Griffiths. For many, myself included, this was the first they had heard of Peter Shaffer’s work.

At the time, vast amounts of press attention focused on the fact that Harry Potter was finishing with franchise and ‘growing up’; he was not only making his first appearance on a London stage, but he was getting undressed in the process. I think regrettably too much was made of this.

Equus became known for its nudity when in fact it is a complex psychological play, exploring religion, institutions and our societal norms and values.

The nudity isn’t gratuitous, nor do I think it should be seen as a defining feature of the play as a whole. For me, it complements and highlights Shaffer’s vision of Alan Strang’s journey, but should not be viewed as the focal point.

In preparation for this part I think it’s important not to get too distracted by Radcliffe’s famous portrayal. Usually when approaching a role I wouldn’t seek out previous examples of how it has been interpreted, as I feel this only limits and may negatively influence my own approach, and that is the case for this production, too.

Indeed, for this reason I have chosen not to watch Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film, partly because I would be wary of trying to emulate Peter Firth’s performance, and partly because I may feel forced to make deliberate choices not to copy him, when those may have been choices I might otherwise have wanted to make.

Instead of approaching other productions, then, the first question that has to be asked is, “who is Alan Strang?” As with preparation for any role one needs to ask what his motivations are, why he does what he does, and try to imagine the background and reasons behind his behaviour.

This is made even more difficult in the context of Alan’s extremely shocking actions, feelings and beliefs – a difficulty that audiences will struggle with in equal measure..

How do we find sympathy and empathy with such a character? This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the role: trying to make sense of and identify with Alan.

It would be wrong to simply label him ‘mad’ – though he may well be – and I think finding a certain compassion for him is essential to playing the role.

In fact, as with any good piece of theatre, I hope the audience will go away questioning themselves, questioning to the extent to which they identify with Alan, and feeling unsettled by the extent to which they care for him.

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