Firth and Foremost
When viewers of PBS’s Masterpiece are introduced to the well-received 2016 English series Victoria on January 15, they will become reacquainted with many players who have delighted them before, among them Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who, Death Comes to Pemberley) as the teenage monarch, Tom Hughes (Dancing on the Edge) as Prince Albert, Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle) as Lord Melbourne and Peter Bowles (Rumpole of the Bailey, To the Manor Born) as the Duke of Wellington. Another familiar face, puffier, a bit worn by time and marked with a scar, may take a bit longer to recognize, but look a while at the proud, stocky and officious figure wearing the beribboned uniform of Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover and Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale, and you’ll find the actor whose passion for horses indelibly energized the London/Broadway stage and screen versions of Peter Shaffer’s riveting psychological drama Equus (1977): Peter Firth, born 63 years ago today. Playing Alan Strang, the disturbed, tightly-wound young man whose flashpoint act of violence fuels the mystery and meaning of this challenging material, Firth was a wiry whirligig playing opposite the equally powerful actors who played psychologist Martin Dysart: Alec McCowen in London, Anthony Hopkins in New York (where Clive Barnes of The New York Times gauged his “a marvelous performance by a young man who has the makings of a great actor”) and Richard Burton on screen in director Sidney Lumet’s dreamily envisioned yet harrowingly realistic movie. Despite the fact that he had aged a tad from the 23-year-old that electrified London, the 26-year-old caught by cinematographer Oswald Morris’s lens retained all the jittery innocence, spiritual yearning and physical abandon (including full nudity) that playgoers experienced, rightly earning an Academy Award® nomination (as did co-star Burton) for his passionate performance a few months after the film arrived in cinemas 39 years ago this month. Equus would prove a calling card to other noteworthy movie projects, such as the title role in director Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Joseph Andrews (1977) that preceded Equus by six months, and director Roman Polanski’s acclaimed romantic epic Tess (1979), playing its heroine’s star-crossed suitor Angel Clare. Firth would also felicitously be called back into service on stage for Shaffer during the Broadway run of Amadeus, succeeding Tim Curry in the role of Mozart. The practice of actors recreating their stage roles on film has always been a hit-or-miss proposition, but in Firth’s case, the result was a breathtaking ride, not just as a startlingly effective piece of adaptation but also as a launching pad for a versatile, decades-lasting career. Experience Firth’s signature performance on Twilight Time’s fine, extras-packed Equus hi-def Blu-ray.