Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Praise of Equus

I knew nothing of the play "Equus" when it premiered in 1973.

In fact, I'm not sure I knew anything about it when a movie adaptation was made four years later. I guess I must have read about it, but I probably didn't comprehend much about the plot. I suppose I went to see it when it came to our town only because I knew Richard Burton was in it, and I was one of Burton's admirers.

So I went to see "Equus" sometime in 1978, even though it premiered on this day in 1977.

It was a haunting tale, inspired by a true story of a teenager who blinded six horses. When he wrote the play, Peter Shaffer knew few, if any, details of the case, and he tried to create a fictionalized explanation for what might have happened.

I was enthralled by the story — and, at the same time, repulsed by it. I have always admired horses — so, from that perspective, I suppose I can understand how the main character could regard horses (and their god figure, Equus) as deities. Swirling around them were the themes of ritual sacrifice and religion.

The main character (Peter Firth), as the audience discovered, had been the recipient of contradictory messages on religion from his devoutly Christian mother and atheist father. He also developed, from an early age, a sexual attraction for horses.

I'm telling you, there's a lot going on here, and it was Burton, playing the role of the psychiatrist, who had to peel away the layers and find out the truth.

It was a meaty role for Burton, appearing in one of his final films (and, in the assessment of many, giving his last great film performance) — a worn out psychiatrist doubting himself and his life's work with troubled young people tries to unravel what may be the greatest challenge of his career. Why would a young boy blind several horses?

I often think of the first time Burton's character, already working with more patients than he can handle, and Firth's character meet in Burton's office. I've been in offices like that — musty and crowded with books. If we could smell it, I suspect it would be a mix of odors, mostly old papers, pipe tobacco and quiet desperation.

Burton's character kept trying to get basic information from Firth's character, who insisted upon singing commercial jingles and little ditties that revealed nothing.

But Burton pressed on.

Jenny Agutter aided in this endeavor, playing a young woman who met Firth's character in the shop where he worked. Agutter's character had close contact with horses, which drew Firth's attention.

And she was drawn into the story, participating in a tryst at which (I presume) the stage play only hinted — but was on full display in the movie. For awhile, it appeared Firth's character might begin to understand the complicated nature of his twisted relationship with sex, religion and horses.

But then he heard horses making noises in the stable where Agutter had been seducing him, and he pulled away from her.

It was, as I say, a haunting story, a disturbing film.

So many moments linger in my memory, even though it has been years since I have seen this movie.

It was a story of faith — and the loss of faith. In a tale full of symbolism, a typical example came when Burton told Firth a story about the "old gods ... before they died."

"Gods don't die," Firth replied.

"Oh, yes, they do," Burton said.

Burton received his seventh — and last — Academy Award nomination for his performance in "Equus."