‘It’s not about the penis’: Beyond nudity in Equus

Image credit: helenatraill

We’ve all had those nightmares where you turn up to a party suddenly to discover that you’re stark naked, and that everyone is staring. Or where you’re on stage, in front of hundreds of people, and the clothes that you were sure you had on before you walked on have suddenly disappeared. Unlike Jonah Hauer-King, however, we are lucky to have the comfort of being able to wake up safe in the knowledge that our public nudity was not, and probably never will be, a reality.

Jonah is currently preparing to play Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, a role made infamous most recently by Daniel Radcliffe’s portrayal of the same character in 2007. It’s a role which requires full nudity, but both he and director Pete Skidmore are both very keen to downplay the importance of it. “It’s one of those things that you just have to do”, Jonah explains nonchalantly. “I’ve had the time to get my head round it and mull it over a little bit, but also because I’ve got to know the play and the character better. It’s not really gratuitous, the nudity; it makes sense in the context of the play. A lot of people think the reason that Alan gets naked is because he wants to have sex with a horse, which isn’t actually what happens.

“I was terrified about it at first, as most people would be. I will feel very exposed. But it only really becomes a reality when you get the part, and then only for me when I do it in rehearsals and then on the night. I’m very lucky to have this amazing role, and so I have to embrace everything that comes with that.”

“Lucky” is a characteristic understatement for Jonah, who has had plenty of experience both in and outside of Cambridge. Appearing in last term’s Road and After Miss Julie, and before that working in theatre and film on his year out, Jonah is surely one to watch on the Cambridge drama scene.

Asked whether he feels doing a nude scene such as this might come to plague him as an actor, as it did briefly for Daniel Radcliffe, Jonah is similarly, and modestly, unconcerned. “I think it was a very specific situation which Daniel Radcliffe had. I mean he had been in one of the biggest movie franchises ever, and I think it was his first role ever outside of Harry Potter. And obviously the image of a 17 year old boy doing that on a London stage is very different from a student theatre setting. It was Harry Potter getting naked rather than just a randomer, like me, getting naked.”

Sadly not coming to Cambridge any time soon... Credit: Reuters

Pete, the director, is keen to move on. “It’s not really a major plot point of the show. I mean, it really helps the visual impact of the show, but it’s really not that important. Everyone always says, ‘Oh, Equus, that’s the one where he has sex with a horse.’ So yeah, we are trying to move away from this idea that it’s all about the horses or the violence or the sex, and into bringing out the psychological themes, the religious themes, and the themes of ritual and folklore.

“What’s most interesting about the play is this clash between early, pre-Christian society and modern culture. I think a lot of people associate with those cultures a more natural way of living, a more emotional and less rigid social structure. We’re bringing in the aesthetics of those cultures to really highlight that.”

“There’s this sort of lingering awareness of those aesthetics on the borders of British consciousness and it makes people feel uneasy when they see these kind of images, which almost parallels what Alan does to Dysart [Alan’s psychiatrist in the play]. He plants this seed of emotion in Dysart and it starts to germinate and that’s kind of what we wanted to do with the audience.”

Alan’s importance in bringing together these themes is clearly crucial. I wonder what Jonah considers to be the biggest challenge in playing him. “I think probably the biggest challenge for Alan is making sure that the audience have a sense of compassion for him. He clearly very disturbed, and he commits these horrible crimes and acts, and, yet I don’t think the play will necessarily work unless the audience have some sense of sympathy for him. Which is very difficult because he is, in many ways, not very likeable. But I’m hoping that the audience will go away questioning how much they do actually sympathise.”

Pete adds, “We tried to create this kind of allure, and that’s what happens with Dysart: he almost gets drawn into this world, even though it’s dangerous. And we want to draw the audience into this world.”

We go on to discuss the underlying criticism of psychiatry implicit in the play, its movement and choreography, and its spectacular visuals. Pete and Jonah have some genuinely insightful and interesting things to say about the play, and the considered manner in which they talk convinces me that Equus will be a stunning production. And yet, as sad a reflection on our culture as it may be, I still can’t escape the feeling that the biggest draw for the audience won’t be the play’s exploration of psychology and religion. Rather, for now and probably always, the appeal of Equus lies only in that scene. 

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