Firth Of Fifth… A Disconcerting Canter Through The Dyionisian Consciousness in Peter Shaffer & Sidney Lumet’s EQUUS.

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BD / DVD. Region B / 2. BFI. 15.

“The aim of (Psychoanalysis) is a modest one, to transform neurotic misery into common or garden unhappiness”. Sigmund Freud.

Growing up gay in Liverpool during the interwar years was no doubt a bumpy path to manhood for playwright Peter Shaffer but at least, as a Jew, he never suffered a Catholic education, where we budding straights were also also taught to mistrust and despise our sexual feelings. Apocryphal accounts place the origins of Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus in reports, now difficult to substantiate, of an obscure and unpleasant case in rural Suffolk where a 17 year old youth blinded several horses. Whatever details that were available at the time, Shaffer disregarded in the construction of a dramatic edifice that confronts several of his own ongoing philosophical preoccupations.

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Alan Strang, the maladjusted horse blinder, is spared prison by the eloquence of his defence counsel and committed to the care of psychiatrist Martin Dysart in a juvenile rehabilitation unit. Dysart struggles against both Strang’s initial uncooperativeness and his growing sense of the futility of his own work and life. Like the protagonist of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs, he sees the world he occupies as a pale shadow of Classical times but perceives himself as an ineffectual “plastic pagan”, a perception which his patient picks up on and uses against him. Through their verbal sparring and his interviews with the the boy’s parents (a similarly discontented dad / fanatically religious mother) and others, Dysart pieces together Alan’s narrative and arrives at the primal scene that preceded his atrocity, which the doctor increasingly sees as some kind of twisted sacrament, an heroic affirmation of spirituality in a materialist wasteland, one with which he finds himself in more than a little sympathy…

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“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”

… well, R.D. Laing was taken a lot more seriously, back in the day, than he is now. Pink Floyd’s management even booked an appointment with him for Syd Barrett, but the befuddled guitarist failed to show up. Syd never blinded any horses, though, as far as we can ascertain.

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Another Sidney, Mr Lumet (seen above, with some Italian actress or other) made films in most every genre, which were frequently among the best in those genres yet always carried his personal directorial stamp. Stage productions adapted to the screen always loomed large in Lumet’s resumé (Murder On The Orient Express, The Offence, The Hill, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A View From The Bridge, The Iceman Cometh and 12 Angry Men, just off the top of my head). The director worked closely with Shaffer on this one, resulting in something much more naturalistic than any of the stylised theatrical performances up that point. I never saw any of those so can’t pronounce on how they measured up to the impact of Lumet’s film but it’s amazing to consider just how much challenging work was filling stages (and auditoriums) in those days, e.g. this… Peter Weiss’s Marat / Sade (and when are we going to see a decent release of Peter Brook’s 1967 film of that?)… Howard Brenton’s The Romans In Britain (the 1982 National Theatre production of which led to director Michael Bogdanov being privately prosecuted – thankfully unsuccessfully – by the despicable Mary Whitehouse) and so on. Before Covid 19 brought it to a useful pause, the contemporary theatre scene has, in contrast, been dominated by the likes of the unspeakable Andrew Lloyd Webber (an aristocratic who was flown across the Atlantic to vote for poor people being made poorer), juke box bio plays and fatuous celebrations of  rap “musicians”.
 

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With a more than capable director and powerful script in place, it didn’t exactly damage this endeavour to add the top notch cast assembled here. Declaiming Shaffer’s choicest lines like his afterlife depends on it, Richard Burton is a veritable force of nature as Dysart, his performance residing almost exclusively  on the right side of the dividing line between “OMG, feel the power!” and “OMG, somebody put a spoon in his mouth!” Peter Firth had played Strang on stage over a thousand times before the film started shooting yet perversely wasn’t the original casting choice and ironically it was through the insistence of Burton (who’d only briefly trodden the boards as the Doc, standing in for Tony Perkins) that he was recalled to recreate his role on celluloid. It’s no small part of the young actor’s achievement that he holds his own against Burton on this kind of form. Firth had certainly come a long way from Here Come The Double Deckers! (below), though ultimately it was en route to the likes of Tobe Hooper’s risible (albeit highly entertaining) Lifeforce (1985). Did poor career choices derail his momentum? Or was Equus always going to be impossible to top?

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Nor are the supporting roles exactly filled with second rate players: Joan Plowright, Colin Blakely, Harry Andrews, Eileen Atkins, Kate Reid, Jenny Agutter… it’s always struck me (and you can make of it what you will) that while Dysart makes a point of talking to Andrews’ stable owner (and discovers – no shit, Sherlock – that he’s none too happy about having his horses blinded), he never bothers (at least in the film) to seek out Agutter’s character Jill, who is such a key figure in the run-up to Alan’s crimes. He and by extension Shaffer and Lumet reject her as comprehensively as Alan did… what’s that all about? For Catholic school casualties of a certain age, the presence of Agutter is always most welcome and her performance here even occasioned a spike in my own fast flagging libido.

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“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Mea culpa, peccavi. Domine miserere mei!”

This special edition, limited to 3,000 copies, comes with a drove of extras spread over its BD (on which the main feature, looking splendid, resides) and DVD discs, including Tony Palmer’s 1988 feature length, career-spanning doc on Burton… an audio interview with director Lumet, conducted by Derek Malcolm and recorded at the NFT…. another audio interview with Peter Firth… Richard Rodney Bennett’s score as an optional isolated track, should you require it… a PIF from (1951) on the importance of the horse to the British way of life and another, made at the beginning of WWII, on the central role played by Faith in that national life, incorporating a timely reflection on the assimilation of Jewish people into British society, in stark contrast to what was going on elsewhere at the time. There’s also an audio commentary from Julie Kirgo and her late husband Nick Redman, which suggests stuff about their interpersonal dynamics that might have made it an interesting listen for Doctor Dysart. Suffice to say, her comments about the Greek hero Ajax fly resolutely over his head. Richard Foster’s black and white short short The Watchers (produced by the BFI in 1969) completes the on-disc extras, earning its place here via its depiction of a mentally unstable schoolgirl achieving her own ecstatic transfiguration on the moors around Todmorden. A fully illustrated collectors’ booklet is limited to the first pressing of this edition.

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Like Hamlet, Dysart reasons that life is not worth living but his working out, so eloquently expressed, strongly suggests to us that it is… as neat a demonstration of Aristotelian catharsis as any pagan, plastic or otherwise, could wish for.

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