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Moving the Magic

‘Harry Potter’ star Daniel Radcliffe recasts himself—complete with nude scene—on the London stage. The critics are impressed.

A more mature Radcliffe graced the stage in London's West End
Uli Weber
A more mature Radcliffe graced the stage in London’s West End
Web-Exclusive Commentary
By Kenzie Burchell
Updated: 1:54 p.m. ET Feb. 28, 2007

Feb. 28, 2007 - On stage in London's West End and stripped of his cinematic magic (and for a while his clothes), Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame proves he’s no-one trick pony. Last night’s much-anticipated revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” showed off a darker, more mature Radcliffe. Gone was the bespectacled schoolboy wizard, replaced by Radcliffe’s portrayal of a disturbed 17-year-old, Alan Strang, who’s committed to a psychiatric hospital for unexplainably blinding six horses with a metal pick. As an estranged and volatile loner, Radcliffe, 17 in real life, deftly reflects the raw passion and erotic energy of Shaffer’s script.

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Film actors, especially those who find themselves stereotyped by their screen roles, frequently use the West End to recast their image and hone their skills. “Equus” is a clear and daring departure from Radcliffe’s interpretation of Harry Potter, the orphaned young wizard who fights the dark arts in J. K. Rowling’s blockbuster series. The teen actor we see on stage is provocative, intelligent, even controversial in the play's famous nude scene. In it, Strang has an awkward—and unconsummated—first sexual encounter with his costar, Joanna Christie, which leaves Radcliffe naked for about 15 minutes until just before the play ends.

And Radcliffe isn’t the only Harry Potter veteran in the cast. The seasoned actor Richard Griffith, who plays the buffoonish muggle Uncle Vernon in the movies, is “Equus”'s Dr. Dysart, the disciplined but overburdened psychiatrist who leads the audience through a postmodern detective story as he struggles to save Strang from the locked memories of his violent breakdown.

The high-profile cast, directed by the 30-year-old Thea Sharrock, does not eclipse the force of Schaffer’s script. Rather, the actors bring the playwright’s powerful social critique to life for a new generation of theatergoers. With only minor text changes, avoiding 1970s parlance, the questions asked in “Equus”—about the dangerous influences of rampant technology—are as relevant today as they were three decades ago. Strang embodies the extremes of human vulnerability, and the disillusioned Dysart’s ruminations draw the audience into debates crucial to our rapidly changing world.

The designer of the original 1973 production at London’s Old Vic Theatre, John Napier, returned to “Equus” in a grand reconstruction at the Gielgud Theatre. Napier is renowned for his work on the likes of “Cats,” “Starlight Express” and “Les Misérables.” His updated “Equus” adorns actors in cagelike masks and large iron hooves to bring Shaffer’s nightmarish horses to life. Napier masterfully blends a clinical modernist design with the hallowed air of a religious site.

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“Equus” dispelled any worries that that the play’s complex and adult-oriented material such as smoking, swearing and sex would muddle the Hogwarts icon. The critics agreed, even if the headline writers couldn’t help drenching their reviews in “Harry Potter” references: BRILLIANT RADCLIFFE THROWS OFF HARRY POTTER'S CLOAK wrote the Daily Telegraph, while the Guardian enthused NO POTTER HORSEPLAY FROM RADCLIFFE, JUST FINE ACTING.

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