Saturday, April 21, 2007

Equus at the John Gielgud Theatre, London

Peter Shaffer's magnificent play Equus, the troubling story of a boy who undergoes therapy after blinding a stable of race horses, has returned to the West End once more in a high caliber production featuring Richard Griffiths as Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist who treats the boy, Alan Strang, played here by Daniel Radcliffe, best known to the world as Harry Potter.

The play was first produced in London and New York in the late 1970's. I caught the end of the run of the original Broadway production (directed by John Dexter) when I was a freshman at Fordham University. By that time, Leonard Nimoy was playing the psychiatrist, and I sat on the stage seats. It was so exciting to be on the stage of The Helen Hayes Theater somehow being a part of the performance. But that was long ago. John Dexter died of AIDS years later, and the Helen Hayes was demolished to make room for the Marriott Marquis hotel.

This run of the play in London is the first revival in the West End of this work since its original run, and it is a gold mine for its producers thanks to its stroke-of-genius casting.

Richard Griffiths comes to Equus after his incredible performance in The History Boys, a play that not only played at The National Theatre, but also went on tour around the world. It played in New York last year where it was showered with Tony nominations. It was one of the rare times when Actor's Equity allowed an entire British cast to come to Broadway. Griffiths picked up the Tony for Best Actor in a play. Boy, did he deserve it! The work allowed him to show off his talents in a way that his usual small roles do not (he has played Uncle Vernon in all of the Harry Potter films and plays one of Peter O'Toole's cronies in Venus). The History Boys was turned into a film last year, again with the cast intact.

Casting Daniel Radcliffe as Alan Strang was a monetary stroke of genius, indeed! The play is selling out in London night after night, not just because the British (and the world) want to experience Peter Shaffer's powerful play again, but because they want to see Harry Potter live and in the flesh. By now, most theater-goers know that the role of Alan Strang requires the actor to shed all his clothing during the climactic blinding scene in the second act.

What are the chances that the reason why audiences are flocking to the Gielgud Theatre is to see Harry Potter magic wand sans his Hogwarts robes? I imagine you would have to poll individual members of the audience for an answer to that question.

I sat next to one of the cello players of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and he and his wife were very curious to know what Americans thought of their Harry Potter performing in this play. I answered them that, save for knowledgeable theater goers, most Americans didn't know what Harry Potter was up up these days, and that the New York Post referred to his participation in this play as Harry Potter doing porn!

Now, what about the production? John Napier has gone back to his original sets and has tweaked his initial concept a bit. We still have the Greek-style performing area complete with on-stage seating. This time the stage seats have the appearance of a hospital, rather than a Greek amphitheater. The horses' masks are remarkably similar to those in the original production, but the eye's light up at certain moments. Also, there is smoke which billows out from the stage floor. The horses' costumes are the familiar tight fitting body suits, but they are now brown rather than the black that I remember from the original Broadway production.

The acting is overall strong. Mr. Griffiths gives a credibly performance as an overworked psychiatrist. His costume consists of black shirt and black pants, thus achieving a more contemporary look than the dark suit and tie worn by the original Dysarts. His performance is imaginative, but surprisingly not strong. In the back of my mind, I am still wondering if Mr. Griffiths has been miscast in this role, although I am coming to the conclusion that it might not be the best of roles for him, but he does a credible job with it.

Daniel Radcliffe is a work in progress. His performances in the Harry Potter movies have been adequate, and he has been coming into his own particularly in the last two films. In this, his first major West End play, he manages to successfully convey the pain and madness of his character, making us forget his Harry Potter. This is his strongest accomplishment. I certainly hope that Mr. Radcliffe has gone around during his acting career with eyes wide opened and has absorbed and learned from the amazing list of talent with whom he has been has been very lucky to have performed in the Harry Potter films. How many teenagers can boast that they have been privileged to have acted with the likes of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman, among others? An incredible roster of educators the likes of which not even Hogwarts could rival.

If you get a chance get over to Shaftesbury Avenue to see Equus. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience a cultural phenomenon the likes of which you might not get a chance to see in any other city, unless they decide to bring it to Broadway -- here's hoping!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Satyagraha at the English National Opera

The new Production of Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha is now playing at the English National Opera where I saw it last night. This production is a joint effort of the ENO and the Metropolitan Opera, and it is scheduled to be performed at the MET this forthcoming season. The nearly sold-out crowd at the London Coliseum was remarkably receptive to this work written many years ago by one of the leading American minimalists, and one of the few works that the ENO has presented in a language other than English. At the request of the directors, the ENO also chose to present this work, sung in Sanskrit, without the use of super-titles.

At the helm was the creative team Improbable made up of director Phelim McDermott and set designer Julian Crouch. Theirs is a captivating and challenging production which makes extensive use of newspapers and puppetry in order to tell the story of the spiritual conversion of Mohandas K. Gandhi. They have rethought Glass's work using projections and a vast array of giant papier-maché figures of impressive size and complexity, some of which are assembled right on the stage by the cast. This aspect of the production, although quite remarkable in its stage-craft, manages to take our mind away from the music. Puppetry seems to be the order of the day at the ENO these days, with this production following on the heels of Anthony Minghella's remarkable Madama Butterfly which used several Japanese bunrako puppets.

I am quite interested in the metamorphosis that this production will undergo when it comes to these shores. The London Coliseum is a a rather large theater, as far as London venues go, but it is small compared to the vast Metropolitan Opera stage. As with Minghella's production of Butterfly there is a great danger that the dimensions of the MET will totally swallow Improbable's visual effects. We are in for a treat, I can tell you that, and I can't wait to see this production when it gets to New York. Satyagraha premieres at the MET on April 11, 2008.