There were two major topics of conversation at the interval of Equus. Many in the audience undoubtedly discussed the play's combination of psychological realism and expressionistic theatre; the more serious critics, however, pondered the imminent prospect of seeing Harry Potter's naked bottom. .
The hysteria over Daniel Radcliffe (star of the Harry Potter films) appearing nude in the West End had been mounting horribly for several weeks.
It all started with a prurient piece in the Daily Mirror that gushed at Radcliffe's transformation from "boy to man". The mania reached its climax last week when a mob of teenage fans outside the theatre forced portly co-star Richard Griffiths to escape through a window.
But Radcliffe could not have chosen a better play to cast off the shackles of Potter stardom. Equus, written by Peter Shaffer in the early 1970s, is almost a caricature of risque, avantgarde theatre. Radcliffe plays Alan Strang, a troubled 17-year-old boy who is sent to a psychiatrist after blinding several horses with a metal spike. But as Dysart, the psychiatrist, begins to uncover Strang's erotic and quasireligious fixation with horses, he is faced with his own doubts about the value of "curing" children who are mentally ill.
Of course, with Radcliffe appearing nude every night in a play as "serious" as Equus, it would have been dreadfully embarrassing if his performance had been awful; and so it was to the relief of every mildly goodnatured theatregoer that the reviews last week praised him unanimously.
But the critics were not so kind to Peter Shaffer's play, and quite rightly. Its central concern is over the moral rightness of returning mentally disturbed children to a state that society deems to be "normal". Dysart, the doubting psychiatrist, has a recurring dream in which he slices open children's intestines as a sacrifice to pagan gods. By curing his patients of illness, Dysart explains, he reduces them to dull, passionless automatons. He even compares his own placid, domesticated life unfavourably with the ecstasy and fervour of Alan Strang's religion.
Equus is now a popular choice for English teachers at secondary schools and sixth-form colleges. But I wonder how anyone could ever have taken its 1970s gobbledegook seriously.
Surely the task for people who work in the mental health sphere of medicine is not to suppress what is abnormal but to help people who are in a lot of pain. A boy who maims horses and whacks himself with a coat hanger each night is clearly not a happy chap.
The play also has quite a simple-minded approach to religion. On the one hand, there is envy of religion in a primitive form, as passionate devotion entirely separated from reason. On the other, there is Alan Strang's Christian mother, whose sexual morality is supposed to be the cause of her son's erotic interest in horses.
Despite the play's codphilosophy. it is rather difficult to get bored during Thea Sharrock's production at the Gielgud Theatre. The horses, played by actors with gleaming metal cages on their heads, are utterly compelling. Their jerking and stamping as Alan lurks in the stables evokes brilliantly the intensity of Alan's relationship with them.
Richard Griffiths is wonderfully understated as Dysart. His tone is wry and self-mocking rather than melodramatic, which is absolutely right in a play already bloated with a sense of its own weightiness.
The language of Equus deserves a final mention. The sentiment may be silly but Shaffer's poetry is often haunting and beautiful, and it is impossible not to be moved when Dysart talks of Alan left to "trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening".