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What Use is Grief to a Horse? Equus on Blu-ray

  Equus, the play, was a sensation on the London stage and later, on Broadway, where it became the hottest ticket around in both locations, so obviously a film had to be made of it to set those performances forever in the amber of celluloid. Peter Firth, the original star who had graduated from juvenile roles to this career-making turn, was back recreating the part that had made him famous, and one of the later stars to play the role of his psychiatrist, Richard Burton, was pinning his hopes on finally securing that elusive Oscar by appearing in the movie. With Sidney Lumet directing, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, the critics had something to say about that, which probably scared away the fans of the original play from Peter Shaffer, and when the non-theatre fans were not showing up either, regarding this as too highbrow to be enjoyable, the chances of making the blockbuster the production evidently hoped for became remote. But the power of a stage effort garlanded with awards and the film version in turn getting a fair few nominations and wins can serve to generate interest; since the film faltered, there had also been an attention-grabbing production on stage starring man of the moment Daniel Radcliffe.

Therefore, going back to Equus the film, had time been kind, or was it left twisting in the wind by comparisons to the far more respected play? The problem often cited was the play was stylised and symbolic, inspired by a real life tragedy when a young man blinded horses in his care as a stable boy; Shaffer took this nugget of a news story and ran with it, creating a psychosexual motivation for the case that mixed in good old religious guilt for good measure to craft what could reductively appear in the film as the story of a young man who would rather have sex with a horse than Jenny Agutter. What succeeded on the boards had trouble here.

Really, the issue was that what was fine on the stage struggled to be credible in your average local fleapit of the nineteen-seventies, and in 1977 the tide was turning to escapism for a night out, not scenes that would either disturb or embarrass. Or both. Burton lent much gravitas to his reading of some very flowery dialogue that sounded like no psychiatrist's dilemma that would have happened in the real world, and while he did not get that Oscar, thanks to he and Firth excelling in difficult circumstances it remains rewarding to return to Equus now and enjoy two very deft performances which keep the drama buoyant over two hours plus.

There were some solid supporting performances too: Joan Plowright (wife of Sir Laurence Olivier who was instrumental in the play taking off) and Colin Blakely (who had played the shrink on stage) were very fine as the young man's baffled, distraught parents who have prompted him to his religious mania and sexual shame, and Agutter added a natural quality to what verged on mannered. But the realistic approach of Lumet faltered when the extreme material had to be presented: the climactic blinding was horribly convincing and took you straight out of the drama. Others may have qualms about the story being on the side of Firth's mentally dangerous attacker.

Still, it is such a major part of the seventies acting landscape that many will be glad to see it receive the Blu-ray treatment from the BFI, including as it does exclusive material, the centrepiece of which is an extensive forty minute interview with Firth. He offers an engaging listen, honest about his time in the play and the subsequent film, leaving his and Shaffer's relationship as a parental one and giving credit to his co-stars where it was due. This was played out over a series of stills since the virus Lockdown was in effect at the time of its recording, so it was an audio interview rather than on-camera, but the anecdotes are well worth hearing (including a lovely one about his parents).

Also on the first disc of a two-disc set is an audio commentary with two film experts, and an audio interview with director Sidney Lumet from 1981, conducted at the National Film Theatre. But maybe the most interesting item on the Blu-ray aside from Equus is a half hour, black and white short called The Watchers which details the spiritual and cosmic awakening of a teenage girl in 1969 Northern England. As she goes about her mundane life, her existence is interrupted by visions of an alien intelligence, assuming the form of astronauts on the moors, which panics and ultimately transforms her: given it appears to be affecting a busload of passengers as well, it may not be a dream.

The second disc is a DVD, the main feature of which is the Thames television documentary from 1988, running a full two hours, about Burton, called In from the Cold? A Portrait of Richard Burton, produced four years after the actor's death. This was the sort of talking heads affair you would expect, though there were plenty of people who knew him who were willing to discuss him, and the anecdotes ran thick and fast, even thanks to archive footage of the man himself where he held forth on a variety of subjects connected to acting. Burton was always in danger of being underrated while alive and became a figure of fun, labelled a terrible ham, but this reclaims his reputation.

To cap this off are a booklet and two information shorts, first Religion and the People from 1940, drawing the British population together by their shared faith, but inadvertently acknowledging there were many variations of Christianity that illustrated a consensus could not be found, and even bringing in Judaism as part of that mixture. This was the sort of stern lecturing that affected Firth's character so badly. Then to end, The Farmer's Horse from 1951, which is so no-nonsense that it makes Equus look a little comical in its objectification of horses as spiritual sex objects rather than an essential item for the working farm. Though here it is admitted the horse is gradually being phased out in favour of tractors; curiously, there are "differently gendered" folks who will sexualise those vehicles just as there are those who worry horses. Maybe a remake of Equus with a tractor would be more animal friendly.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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