It’s an unfortunate circumstance when talented film makers fortified with the best of intentions get carried away with their efforts, becoming quite pleased with themselves that unlike the majority of commercial craftsmen they are tackling important ideas, and due to such self-reverential motivations, blinded by creative pride while ignoring the more fundamental details that invest the work with intelligence and profundity, are more likely than not to fail to dramatize their material; instead suspending it for admiration as if in a filmic bell jar.
Sidney Lumet’s film version of Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” is an unfortunate example of a noble failure; a film that is intelligently directed, acted with a dedicated earnestness and adapted by the playwright with a rare fidelity allowed to the original text. All in all, an admirable effort. Yet, as a cinematic representation of the theatrical experience it is almost a complete failure. How can this be?
From the opening moments of Richard Burton’s narration, we are clearly in the hands of a team of film making artists who are on a mission to bring this project to the screen with a severity of interpretation seemingly befitting the source material; too self-consciously serious in fact, as in translating the play they have make the calculative error of omission, 0f removing the core contributions of the original theatrical director’s- John Dexter -conception on how Shaffer’s play should be lifted from the page and realized outside of the realm of the author’s imagination. This may seem like an uncharacteristically regressive idea- to be beholden to the creative dictates of an entirely separate art form, yet the reasons for this are all in the play itself. Shaffer, in his own stage directions to the printed editions of the play, admits that in the play’s conception there were no ideas for stage directions at all indicated, and it is only after Dexter’s contribution reached fruition that Shaffer included extensive notations specific to those implemented by the director, as they are as organic to the text as are each individual sentence. What would otherwise be a stream of consciousness narrative emanating from the imagination of one character (significantly a psychiatrist) is given shape, physical form and character enrichment through masterful applications of minimalist staging, movement, lighting and sound. While the contributions of any capable stage director, in theory, contribute to the metamorphic translation of a printed script to stage; it is rare where the directorial contribution becomes so infused into the very fabric of the play that it forever transforms the piece, in this case, from a literate psychological pseudo-mystery to a philosophic exploration of the battle between the calculatedly rational mind and idolatrous primitivism emanating through the irrational imagination by entering into a constantly shifting netherworld of shadow and light, not only representative of the corporeal world but of the primal subconscious. Staged within in a circular nexus surrounded on three sides by elevated banks of spectator seating resembling an operating theater, the actors wove in and out of the central action as would flickering thoughts in a pageant of hallucinogenic remembrance.
Sidney Lumet, for all of his skills as a director is possessed of a patently literal eye with absolutely no feel for visualizing the subcutaneous architecture of the fantastic imagination (his approach to a more familiar fantasy landscape in “The Wiz” was even more stylistically unwieldy, resulting in a disastrous film), the mythic (although often successful with characters and themes that are obsessively driven; an entirely different matter) nor any affinity toward the depiction of genuine passion. Literal mindedness is exactly what Shaffer’s play doesn’t call for (it brings about an inadvertent trivialization to the point of banality toward some very tenuous moral complications that convert the play’s themes from stimulating complexity into the realm of the mundane); removing every idea realized or implied by John Dexter’s invaluable contributions removes the very binding sustenance which elevated and informed the play- the soul of the piece, if you will -for if Peter Shaffer is the author who conceived and nourished the idea to the point of theatrical fruition, John Dexter was the one who breathed life into it. Now, there is a point where the transference (if indeed, it must occur) of a vehicle from one art form to another makes transitive alterations in its make up, but to shave the essence of the piece, its very “tone”, speaks of a grave conceptual misunderstanding of the work.
The story centers on a psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart who is approached by a friend and magistrate Hester to take charge of a seventeen year old boy, Alan Strang, who has just been incarcerated for blinding six horses with a metal spike. As the story unfolds, Alan begins to reveal his obsessive delusion which has elevated horses to god-kings, his Equus is an omnipresent deity figure who smothers his social impulses which further alienate him from family, society and reality. Dysart, on the other hand, in a series of revealing, humbling soliloquies reveals his own primordial demons which, significantly, also find their basis in theological primitivism. A natural symbiotic sympathy emerges between the two: for Dysart, Strang is the embodiment of his self-perceived failure to experience passion in any form, spending his evening’s in a loveless existence pouring over books of ancient ruined cultures, while Dysart, to Strang is a sympathetic ear, a cure, an intimate who will not reproach his beliefs or actions, and not unimportantly- a fellow sufferer; Alan cannily discerns Dysart’s sense of prolonged disaffection with his life and with the sharp surgical precision of one with experience in psychic pain, jabs at the specific sources of the doctor’s misery. There is a bond between the two that is unspoken but is acknowledged by Dysart to his friend Hester, a magistrate who brought the case to his desk in the first place.
The play, with the outward structure of a psychological investigation by means of various therapeutic trickery (Strang openly accuses Dysart of playing tricks; coy stratagems conceded by the good doctor.) unfolds as an extended clinical psychotherapy session with punctuations of both British kitchen sink drama and morbid self-analytical projections. With this last, the narrative then breaks into two parallel stories: the first, the mystery of Stang’s abhorrent act and why he did it and, the second, recording the realization by Dr. Dysart that Strang is his uncomfortable philosophical doppelganger- a real-life manifestation of all of the impulses Dysart has repressed to form his unbearably passionless existence. Rather than being appalled by Strang’s actions, (the horrific results yes, but not the root intentions) Dysart is fascinated, then attracted to the boy’s delusional state which Dysart jealously regards as a State of Grace he could never hope to experience.
Unlike the original staged version, the film unfolds as an unimaginative procedural and contains not a single moment of poetry, mystery nor passion. The recollections of Alan’s first encounter with a horse on the beach is clumsily staged, reminiscent of dozens of tawdry AIP or Hammer productions from the mid-Sixties and a later equally important flashback to a sexually charged nude nocturnal “bonding” with “Equus” is destructively lackluster; neither sensual nor dreamlike and certainly bereft of any phantasmagorical elements that would render an emotionally coherent immersion into Alan’s fantasy world. This is no fault of Peter Firth as Alan Strang, who is splendid throughout the film, but goes back to the aesthetic temperament of director Lumet who is simply incapable of raising the ghostly specters from the printed page to the screen. For all of the intelligent- if plodding- craft on display, Lumet fails to find a cinematic visual equivalent to the Shaffer/Dexter theatrical experience, which brings to mind a list of fundamental questions concerning the adaptive process: When a producer buys a theatrical property for a translation to the screen, what exactly are they buying? What is their intention? Is it the text alone which intrigues, or the combined experience unique to a fully realized theatrical staging that instigates interest in the project? These are questions endlessly pondered by critics and astute audiences alike, especially when viewing a cinematic translation that is perceived a failure, especially in terms of that failure emanating from drastic cuts or restructuring of the original source materials. The question naturally arises: if you weren’t happy with the nature of the project, why invest so heavily in it in the first place? Why remove what made it vital enough to interest you in the first place?
Often enough, these destructive alterations are entirely mired in poor editorial decision making, often due to the intercession of creative individuals who might feel bruised in their egotism if their fingerprints aren’t allowed to be felt on every aspect of the production, (this might come from any highly placed creative talent or from the executive branch attempting to make a name for themselves) including completely changing the conception of the intended film. But regardless of their source, these interruptions of continuity in the adaptive process are almost guaranteed to eviscerate the identity of the material in that vast wasteland between what it was and what it will be. (This was especially true during the so-called “second Golden Age” of Hollywood from the late 60’s to the early 70’s, where executive interference ran rampant, especially in the notorious Aubrey MGM regime.) In the case of “Equus”, as previously stated, the textual elements are all there in evidence on the screen, but it is the aesthetic context which has been irretrievably altered, excising all deeply felt illusions involving deluded spiritual catharsis- the audience must feel Alan’s delusion to understand both him and Dysart’s growing infatuation with that delusion -which is at the very heart of the play; without which, the concluding soliloquy is rendered meaningless as it changes the emphasis from a depressed psyche coveting another’s experienced euphoria, to a sadomasochistic insistence that pain is a desired psychological state.
Richard Burton brings his full solid range of self-disgust to the role of Martin Dysart, a tool that has informed his greatest film performances (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) though his focus is not as acute as those classic performances. There are moments in which he inhabits the role so completely it appears as if he’s transcending his highest peak of achievement, but there is inconsistency present as well. Occasionally, Burton appears suddenly removed from complete immersion in his role, seeming to offer awareness that he is giving a performance and becomes mannered and slightly self-conscious. This dichotomy within his performance is puzzling. Could it be an inconsistency in direction? Hardly plausible for a performer as seasoned as this. Or could something more worrisome be afoot? Could it be that Burton had spent so many years devaluing his talents with uncommitted performances in often less than mediocre films, that he no longer was capable of the focused discipline necessary to tackle such a demanding role?
Eileen Atkins works quiet wonders with crucial role of Hester, Martin’s confidant and psychic mediator in his continuous war between professional responsibility and moral self-doubt. Jenny Agutter also contributes attractively in the rather underwritten and colorless role of Jill , the girl who generates a sexual awakening in Alan that leads to tragic consequences. Only Joan Plowright and Colin Blakely falter as Alan’s parents, playing more to “type” than diving into their characters, though admittedly these two roles are the weakest of the play; Shaffer seems to concede to easy targets of the stereotypical mismatching of obsessively spiritual with the devoutly atheistic. (How do these people meet and mate outside of an author’s imagination?) With Lumet’s laboriously flat approach, these two underwritten characters become caricatures of parental disrepair, easy targets for derision but muting the widening human tragedy of the story. Happily, with Peter Firth, there is a compelling center to the film that is so perfectly realized it becomes a painful experience to watch, so convincing is this complex inhabitation of the character’s pain; Burton must have sensed this as well as his own performance gains in magnitude whenever he and Firth share the screen.
Unfortunately, the stellar display of Firth’s talent deserves a far more coherently designed encasement; it makes you realize what this film might have been under a more appropriate directorial sensibility: a Peter Weir or David Cronenberg perhaps.
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Thanks for your honest review of Equus. I noticed it is now on streaming and I considered watching it due to the cast and crew. Your review has saved me two hours!!
Perhaps my view is prejudiced by the theatrical experience, but if a film is a seriously diminished version, I think that merits consideration. Better to see a serious live performance if one becomes available.