The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
Theatre Royal Haymarket
5th April 2017
In the year following Edward Albee’s death, we are extremely privileged to have two of his plays simultaneously performed in the West End. The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? was written in 2000, some 38 years after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play which Albee was so associated with that he described it as “[hanging] about my neck like a shining medal of some sort”. Yet whilst some may view the latter with no expectation of the carnage to follow, I suspect most audiences will be aware of at least one fact about The Goat. This is a very decent and often poignant production of a fascinating play, problematised not by its uncomfortable subject, but incomplete characters and an occasional lack of subtlety.
Martin Gray (Damian Lewis) is a distinguished architect, living a seemingly carefree life with adoring wife, Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) and son, Billy (Archie Madekwe). Yet all is not well, and his mind is perpetually elsewhere. Confiding in best friend Ross (Jason Hughes), he reveals that he has fallen in love with ‘Sylvia’, a revelation which is met with some amusement, and little judgement. This, however, turns to horror when Martin elaborates that Sylvia is a goat – of the literal, bleating variety. Having left in disgust, Ross writes to Stevie of what he knows, and suffice it to say, she is not best pleased.
The Goat is not an allegorical tragedy. Comparisons between Martin’s transgression and his son’s homosexuality are explicitly rejected, and neither is it treated like an affair, the characteristics of which are examined in some detail. Equally, Albee does not compel us to simply conclude that Martin is depraved, or having a breakdown. Rather, he presents bestiality in a detached, and unflinchingly detailed manner, with an insightful critique of the notion that love is inherently good. In turn, the play demonstrates Albee’s gift for injecting absurdity into the most desperate situations, often to supremely comic effect. Martin’s description of his bestiality support group is deeply uncomfortable, and yet his deadpan explanations of fellow attendees’ predilections, coupled with a brick joke involving a mysterious business card, makes for grimly hilarious viewing.
Yet for all that is impressive about The Goat – its unfailing honesty, pitch black humour, and the breathtaking intensity of the central conflict – I believe the play has a fundamental flaw. This is exemplified by the early scenes, in which Martin endlessly repeats himself and is confounded by the simplest statements. Not only does this hint at the extent of his obsession, but it serves a valuable dramatic purpose. As the play progresses, our perspective of Martin’s admirable qualities is primarily filtered through the recollections of others, emphasising the irrevocable damage that his transgression has on his identity.
Unfortunately, this characterises a play frequently defined by words, rather than actions. We never see the marital bliss which was undone by Martin’s behaviour, and of which Stevie recounts with both sadness and fury. The fact that Martin fell for what he perceived as the embodiment of “pure, trusting, innocent, guileless” nature speaks of a deep-rooted sense of longing which would challenge her memories, but we are not given the tools to decipher this. In this regard, Ross also offers little help. Though he is Martin’s oldest friend, a more or less impartial observer, and a person in whom he places absolute trust, he restricts himself to disgusted utterances. This is understandable, but ultimately unedifying behaviour, which frustrates in spite of Jason Hughes’ best efforts.
The two central performances are, overall, very strong – the slightly flat opening scenes more than compensated by the kinetic energy of Martin and Stevie’s confrontation. I wonder if Damian Lewis may have overemphasised Martin’s self-awareness and underplayed his selfishness – there are moments in which one questions his bafflement at the awfulness of his actions, and his motivations to transgress when we have little reason to doubt his loving and sexually fulfilling relationship. Nevertheless, he is quite magnificent in several scenes, not least in the aftermath of Billy’s heartbreaking and misguided attempt to demonstrate his love. Aided by Archie Madekwe – in what was a very assured West End debut – Lewis gives a highly moving account of the complexities of paternal love and bestows a number of unsavoury concepts with the necessary sympathies.
Sophie Okonedo is an impressive Stevie, brilliantly depicting the unrelenting and erratic waves of grief that follow such a shock. It is a remarkable study of the Kubler-Ross model in action, and Okonedo powerfully captures the range of emotions that accompany her anger, attempts to bargain, and her insurmountable fear. Her relationship with Billy might have been a little more nuanced, although it is not something to which Albee gives much attention, and the crockery smashing (she does a lot of it) felt oddly perfunctory at times. Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles in a performance I will remember for its great honesty, remarkable comic timing, and the impossible degrees of hurt that could be conveyed with just a look or a word.
The Goat is a fascinating play by one of America’s greatest playwrights; a depiction of life utterly undone by an unforgivable transgression. Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo are excellent as disintegrating couple Martin and Stevie, ably supported by West-End debutant Archie Madekwe as their son Billy. The play suffers from too much ‘telling’, rather than ‘showing’, and in spite of Jason Hughes’ best efforts his character Ross is little more than a plot device. Nevertheless, this is an admirable production and a must-see for Albee fans