Thea Sharrock: 'Equus' director reveals naked ambition

When Thea Sharrock agreed to direct 'Equus', she took on a huge responsibility - doing justice to Peter Shaffer's seminal play, and handling Daniel Radcliffe's transition from boy wizard to sex symbol. Alice Jones reports

Reflecting on the immense success of his play in the West End and on Broadway in the 1970s, Peter Shaffer wrote: "In London, Equus caused a sensation because it displayed cruelty to horses; in New York, because it allegedly displayed cruelty to psychiatrists." This time round, the sensation comes in the gym-toned shape of the teenage Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, who has chosen the play for his theatrical debut, simultaneously shedding his clothes and his boy wizard tag.

Shaffer's play about a teenager who develops a sexual-religious obsession with horses, which culminates in him blinding six of them with a hoof pick, premiered at the Old Vic in 1973. The National Theatre production starred Peter Firth (lately seen as Harry in the BBC drama Spooks) as the disturbed Alan Strang and Alec McCowen as his psychiatrist Martin Dysart. The play transferred to Broadway, with Anthony Hopkins as Dysart, and in 1977 was made into a film starring Richard Burton.

The theatre whizz kid Thea Sharrock, who wasn't born when the play was written, is the director saddled with the twin responsibilities of making Radcliffe's stage debut a success and helming the first major revival of the play for more than 30 years. Following the initial flurry in the 1970s, Shaffer has since resisted all requests for a West End production. When, after nearly 10 years of negotiations, the producer David Pugh finally secured the rights, they came with one condition attached: that the playwright should have the last word on the actor playing Strang. To this end, a quaking Radcliffe was subjected to a private read-through in the Old Vic with Shaffer two years ago.

The casting has, predictably, caused a media frenzy, helped along by publicity shots which show Radcliffe naked - in one caressing a horse, in another staring lustily at the naked body of his co-star Joanna Christie, who plays Strang's human love interest, Jill. The teenager is taking the full frontals and abortive sex scene in his stride, sagely opining: "I couldn't do it with my pants on. That would be rubbish." It's a far cry from the chaste photographs that accompanied breathless reports about Harry Potter's first kiss in the upcoming Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - last November. With two more Harry Potter films in the pipeline, a tricky theatrical role is a canny, if risky, career move for the 17-year-old. While an hilarious turn in Ricky Gervais' Extras saw Radcliffe poke fun at himself as a randy child star, Equus is an altogether more serious proposition.

"If you want to be an actor, then you need to be tested and I can't think of a more testing part, apart from Hamlet, for this age," says Sharrock. Is he ready for the challenge? "The peculiar life Dan's led has prepared him for things that most people will never have to deal with. To watch the ease with which he deals with things is extraordinary and immediately gave me great faith in the fact that he had as good a chance as anybody of pulling it off, if not better." The 30-year-old director, who has a one-year-old son, says that her newly awakened maternal instincts have been crucial in dealing with the adolescent star. I wonder how this fits with the rather lascivious comments which accompanied the publicity shots. "When that boy takes his shirt off, Harry Potter has flown Hogwarts for good," enthused Pugh.

Radcliffe is raring to go, but what of his young, impressionable fans? Harry Potter followers must be responsible for at least some of the £1m in advance ticket sales. The production team has declined to set an age-limit, reasoning that "one 14-year-old is not the same as the next 14-year-old", and leaving the decision up to the parents. The Potter blogosphere is buzzing with "disappointed" parents, hysterical fans ("the last thing we want is for you to become a porn star!!"), hormonal teens ("Daniel is the buffest guy in the whole world!") and some confused new followers ("I don't know whether that is disturbing or hot... or disturbingly hot!"). Is it right to unleash Radcliffe's burgeoning sexuality on this unsuspecting audience? "That's not what the nudity is about," says Sharrock. "There is unquestionably a very dark side to the play - that's what makes it so visceral and exciting - but it doesn't take away from the fact that it's an exceptional piece of playwriting and it's time to see it again. It's too good for yet another generation not to see it. At some point, you have to hold your hands up and say you can't please all of the people all of the time. But perhaps some of those people will come and see it and be bowled over by Daniel's performance - not Harry Potter, but Daniel Radcliffe - and forgive us for doing it. He's not a fictional boy who lives in a book."

With a youthful audience in mind, Shaffer and Sharrock have worked "hand in hand" to bring various 1970s references up to date, but the director denies that the openness about teenage sexuality so shocking in 1973 might have lost its potency today. "Without question, today's 17-year-olds are very different, but not all of them," she says. "The point about Strang is that he's an outsider. Don't tell me there aren't kids who are on the outside of those collective gangs - those for me are the Strangs of today and I think they'll always be there."

One aspect of the production that is happily above

controversy is the casting of Richard Griffiths, fresh from the triumph of The History Boys, opposite Radcliffe. Having worked with Griffiths on both Art and Heroes, Sharrock "could only hear his voice" when she read the part. As Radcliffe has the good fortune to learn from Griffiths, Jenny Agutter, who plays Hester, the magistrate, is on hand to offer Christie the benefit of her experiences as Jill in the 1977 film.

The wire horse's heads and the metal platform hooves in the rehearsal studio are another throwback to the original, as John Napier, who designed the 1973 production, has been drafted in for the revival. This time, Will Kemp, best-known as a dancer with Matthew Bourne's company, will bring Nugget - the horse at the centre of Strang's fantasies - to life.

Sharrock is philosophical about the weight of history that comes with the play, jokingly referring to Shaffer and Napier as her "wing men". "I think it's been really refreshing for Peter to prove that the play is better than that first production," she says. "I know it was a surprise for him to be confronted with a young, female director. But I'm very pleased that I am female because it is quite a male play. Peter and I joke all the time about the steadying female influence but I think it's very relevant." Sharrock has been immersed in the world of theatre for as long as she can remember, and attended the Anna Scher theatre school from the age of nine. During a gap year between school and Oxford University, she spent six months working at Johannesburg's Market Theatre and six months at the National Theatre Studio. In 2000, she won the James Menzies-Kitchin Young Director of the Year Award, and her first production Top Girls at BAC transferred to the West End. Aged 24, she was appointed the artistic director of the Southwark Playhouse, the youngest person to run a theatre. She has been in charge of the Gate in Notting Hill since 2004 and will leave there next month to pursue freelance projects.

Equus is the biggest gamble of her career. "With Dan, I do feel a huge sense of responsibility. It's a huge personal risk for him. One has an overwhelming sense of wanting to protect him, wanting to work him as hard as possible, so that when he goes out there he's going to do himself proud." If anyone can make this production remembered for more than Harry Potter stripping off, Sharrock can.

Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (08709 500 915), 27 February to 9 June

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice