Review of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? starring Damian Lewis at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
Edward Albee once famously said that the only time he’ll get good reviews is if he were to kill himself. This stylish and welcome revival of his 2001 play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is his second to open in the West End since his death last year and further demonstrates his unique skill at knowing exactly how to manipulate and test his audience. Whilst critics and audiences alike may once again be divided in their opinions, there's a deliberate impertinence in Albee's wit and the limits to which he pushes his characters that still reads as edgy and intentionally provocative.
Despite winning the Tony Award on its original Broadway outing (his first play to open on Broadway in 19 years) The Goat… was admittedly designed to “test the tolerance of the audience”. Much like his masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which can be seen round the corner at the Harold Pinter Theatre, this troubling yet astute drama trades in a similar currency of explosive martial angst yet constantly pushes the audience to its extremes in terms of content and subject matter. Skilfully handled, it peaks and uncovers its multi-layered narrative in an inviting and inquisitive manner and rather than reaching for a repulsive reaction offers an honest and viably humane account of a man on the edge of societal bounds.
Martin is a celebrated architect and the youngest to win the Pritzker Prize, his industry’s version of the Nobel. On the cusp of 50 he remains in love with his wife Stevie and is just about understanding of his eighteen-year-old son Billy who is “as gay as the nineties”. His 'malaise' is exposed, first to his best friend, photographer Ross and later his nuclear family. Unlike your average extra-marital affair, the third point of the triangle is not a human, but a goat named Sylvia.
Ian Rickson’s production remains faithfully literate and straight down the line, confronting the material head on and doesn't attempt to mask in humour. Set in a beautiful and stylish apartment that exudes success, style and liberal tolerance, Rae Smith’s design is allowed a moment of expressionism as Martin’s familial world literally expands around him as he reveals his secret. It’s a slight move but one that acts as a signal on how we are to react. The drama works because of its attention to realism – when the set starts to fly, the glasses smash and the argument is explored head on, the room, much like Martin's world, has expanded beyond comprehension.
Albee’s deliberate alignment between Martin’s acceptance of his son’s sexuality and its dismissal as being but a ‘phase’ rubs against his need for understanding in his love for Sylvia. We’re reminded of the arguments from the right surrounding marriage equality and those who asked the question how far would we go – if we let men marry men would they soon be asking to marry animals? As much as it feels the bestial theme is chosen to deliberately probe audiences accustomed to a conventional drama of a marital breakdown, this deeper reading works aside from the context of their domestic setting.
The language remains course throughout and has a numbing effect the more vulgar it gets. What keeps his characters inviting, particularly throughout Martin and Stevie’s extended argument, is the skilful wordplay that reveals two highly intellectual characters verbally spatting, correcting grammar and congratulating each other on their use of metaphors and references. This ultimately keeps it affecting, human and bitterly funny. As the family’s life crumbles and continues to disband they remain somewhat grounded and connected by their wordplay which in turn pushes the drama to become much more than a scene for marital angst.
There’s an unease in the chemistry between Damian Lewis’ defiant yet oddly buttoned-up Martin and Sophie Okenedo’s defeated Stevie that takes a while to warm up. Their relationship doesn’t feel sufficiently torpedoed by Martin’s revelation. There’s a lack of mutual celebratory love that means they don’t instantly connect, they feel somewhat cold towards each other that suggests their differences but doesn’t hit your heart as well it might. Archie Madekwe is less confident as their son, the appropriately named Billy. There’s appropriate teenage angst and fiery admission, but the three never gel sufficiently as a family unit to ever feel quite damaged enough by this explosion.
As the revelations compound Albee tests his audience further and I was interested to note the points of which some audience members were simply pushed too far, escaping the interval-less drama as their personal tolerances became broken. With the noise of every seat back slamming I couldn’t help but imagine Albee smile with a twisted delight.
The genius of the play is its refusal to pass judgement or champion a specific victim, which forces the audience to then address their own moral compass. You remain in a constant state of unease and feel voyeuristic in your active contribution, yet like a headline from a Red Top newspaper feel compelled to keep reading. As the character of the Goat itself makes its appearance late in the play it all takes a turn for the Greek. Etymologists would delight in the notion of tragedy coming from the Greek 'tragos' for goat and 'odie' for song. Albee's 'song for a goat' appropriately feels like a contemporary tragedy and one that's probing and anarchic in its delivery.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Tickets are on sale until 24 June 2017
What the Press Said...
"Far from writing a sensationalist play about bestiality, Albee is posing serious questions about the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"I remain goat-stubborn in my belief, though, that this could be better."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"despite moments of explosive humour, often feels glib or pedantic."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard