Royal Court Theatre
Goats is a major new work by playwright and documentary-maker Liwaa Yazji and The Royal Court. It focuses on a small Syrian town where a new government initiative replaces every martyred son with a goat leading to what can only be described as cloven-hoofed anarchy. There is certainly some frisson to actors sharing the stage with a cast of incredibly charismatic goats, however the novelty soon wears off to reveal a play, sadly, about as dramatically refined as Hackney City Farm.
The opening state is disconcertingly pretty; pale MDF, hot pink lighting and baby blue cloth draped over large rectangular coffins that dominate the stage. Garish gold framed pictures acclaim their recently deceased charges and white wreaths and garlands bloom creating a synthetic and shocking spectacle. From the beginning, Goats gives us a sense of the carnivalization of death. In the world of this play, death is all too brutally familiar and routine.
Director Hamish Pirie makes some interesting choices with the use of camera phones and live television cameras broadcasting events straight back on to looming monitors that hang above the stage. The effect is disconcerting and means that the story can hardly unfold before it’s micro-managed and packaged by an officious TV presenter perpetually on brief to ensure all media on the monitors glorifies the fallen martyrs, celebrates the noble government and denigrates the spectral enemy. In the centre of the somewhat ramshackle story is Abu Firas played with real heart by Carlos Chahine, a father who has recently lost his son to the conflict but will not accept the narrative fed to him by the state. He does his best to uncover the truth but is thwarted at each turn. He doesn’t want his goat.
It is a vast and convoluted plot with multiple peripheral characters ensuring that we hear a good balance of opinion, seemingly just to reiterate the point that what’s going on in Syria is a complex issue. However, the ensemble is uneven if not weak and there are countless line drops and fluffs. This just isn’t acceptable at a venue like the Royal Court and it means that the play frequently loses momentum and pace that no amount of blaring Syrian grime or full beam lights straight at the audience can mask. Sirine Saba has an incredible voice and is compelling as the ruthless presenter and then again as Imm al-Tayyib but her energy and efforts seem to pour out into a bit of a vacuum, and I felt perhaps her frustration as the betrayed wife of a crooked politician was channelling a frustrated actress being given very little by her scene partners.
There is humour certainly in Yazji’s script; the sort that makes you exhale out of your nose. However, there’s something seriously wrong with a production when the most present, captivating performances come from livestock. The Royal Court was right to take a punt and to develop this peculiar play. And right again to choose something that brings attention to the barbaric violence and cruel misery that blights the lives of so many in Syria. It’s refreshing to go to something without such barefaced moralising but I can’t say I really enjoyed it. No kidding.