Mostly I don’t write about the public figures who die, but I’m making an exception for Richard Griffiths. Griffiths died yesterday, reportedly from complications following heart surgery, at age 65. The obituaries in the news are full of praise from fans and colleagues, including the young man who is arguably his most famous co-star – Daniel Radcliffe.
Richard Griffiths played Vernon Dursley in the “Harry Potter” movies, but that’s not why I admired his work. Frankly, I thought those movies were pretty uneven across the board, though Griffiths’ casting was one of the better aspects… right up there with Maggie Smith, really.
From September 2006 to March 2007, I lived in England while I took classes through my university’s overseas studies program. Oxford is only an hour by train and about two hours by bus from London, so going to the West End for theater was completely within reason. I managed to go to several shows, seeing some of the current acting greats. In Stratford, I saw Ian McKellen as Lear, and in London, I watched Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in “Antony and Cleopatra.” There was Idina Menzel’s brief London appearance in “Wicked” and a personal favorite, Edward Petherbridge, in a quirky little play spoofing Oxbridge culture called “Donkey’s Years.”
But of all the theater I’ve seen, in any country, it was the 2007 run of “Equus” that holds the top position. To that time, I had been amused but not overwhelmingly impressed by Daniel Radcliffe. I suppose I should give him some credit for doing what he could with rather wooden characters (let’s face it, young David Copperfield and Harry Potter are neither of them wildly interesting – one is the lens through which we see the story, and the other is the archetypical hero who is brave but endlessly predictable). While I had seen Richard Griffiths in bit parts, he’d never really caught my attention, and as Vernon Dursley he was more cartoon than anything else.
“Equus” is the single most mesmerizing, gripping experience I’ve ever had in a theater. I’m not sure if I remembered to breathe much during the play, and I definitely don’t remember any moments of wandering mind that I usually get even in movies and shows I like tremendously.
I know there were at least two women in the play, but honestly? It was Griffiths and Radcliffe who held the audience rapt. Perhaps the performance benefited from their longtime friendship and professional collaboration, perhaps they’re both just brilliant onstage. Or maybe both.
For those who don’t know, “Equus” is an emotionally taught play about a young man who has somehow conflated horses with ascetic, fanatical religion. When he has a sexual encounter with a fellow stablehand (a girl, to be clear) in the stable, with the horses watching, he experiences a psychological break. He feels he has desecrated a place that is, to him, of the highest sacred meaning. Unable to cope with the internal torment, guilt, and sense that the horses saw and judged everything, the young man grabs a pointed tool used for cleaning hooves and blinds all of the horses in the stable.
The play tells all of this in flashback, as the young man has sessions with a psychiatrist, this time played by Griffiths. The psychiatrist finds the young man’s story fascinating, and it leads him to experience something of a professional crisis.
And yes, the play does involve some nudity, but honestly, I was so gripped by the story and the performances that I hardly noticed.
The acting world has lost a bright light in Richard Griffiths.