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 JuneReuse content