The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

Posted by Laurence Green

Lawrence Green reviews a handsome new production of Edward Albee's provocative tragi-comedy The Goat or Who is Sylvia at Theatre Royal Haymarket.

The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?

The late, great American playwright Edward Albee, who died last September, is suddenly in vogue and following a superb revival of his masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes Ian Rickson's handsome new production of his provocative 2002 tragi-comedy The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (Theatre Royal Haymarket).

At 50 Martin is at the pinnacle of life: he has a loving wife, Stevie, and son Billy, a hugely successful career as an architect and the commission of a lifetime - he has been chosen to design a model city to rise in Kansas wheat fields. But it is clear from the outset that something is troubling Martin. He worries about memory loss and seems strangely detached during a TV interview with his oldest friend, Ross. Eventually he confesses the reason for his anxiety: he has fallen in love, spiritually and physically with a goat, the eponymous Sylvia. Having embarked on the improbable and impossible love affair, from which there is no return, Martin must face the dizzying, explosive consequences.

Our initial response to this revelation is one of shock, tinged with incredulous laughter. However, far from writing a sensationalist play about bestiality, Albee is posing a serious question about society's intolerant attitude to difference and the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality. It is, though, much about a marriage under immense strain (a theme it shares with Virginia Woolf), as it is about erotic fixation. From the start Martin and Stevie have established a joint intimacy that makes you believ they are still in love. The crisis, when it comes, is shattering and one in which both parties jointly suffer as their long marriage degenerates into a cutthroat sparring match.

This is a dark play, which also manages to be absurd, funny and thought-provoking and is full of Albee's characteristically sharp wit and the writing manages to smash taboos that have long been taken for granted.

It is indeed a difficult subject to bring off and make credible but it does so admirably, thanks to a first class cast under the direction of Ian Rickson. Damian Lewis delivers a performance of unsettling intensity as Martin, perfectly capturing his initial unease and the way he looks through rather than at people and admitting to the terrifying solitude, that comes from being a sexual outlaw in a society where love has strict parameters. Meanwhile, Sophie Okonedo gives the best performance of her career as his wife Stevie. She is livid, sardonic and grief-stricken by turns, covering the emotional gamut from disgust and horror to plate-smashing and despair as she listens to Martin's confession. Archie Madekwe also impresses as the couple's bewildered gay son Billy, revealing a degree of vulnerability beneath his robust exterior, and there is strong support from Jason Hughes as the old friend Ross.

This then, is a play that challenges orthodox ideas about desire and compassion, and delivers an emotional punch, while raising the question: what lies beneath our veneer of tolerance and liberalism. It is certainly a cry of despair at the human condition.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

Plays at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until Saturday 24 June 2017.

Box office: 020 7930 8800

 

 

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