The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
Martin (Damien Lewis) seemingly has the perfect life: he is the youngest ever recipient of the Pritzker Prize, feels the same way about his wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) as he did when they first met and has a beautiful son, Billy (Archie Madekwe). Oh, and he is also in love with a goat.
This taboo – not only sexual but, importantly, emotional – leads the protagonist down the rabbit hole of familial destruction, his wife, son and best friend Ross (Jason Hughes) are all disgusted at his confession. Through this Edward Albee probes the boundaries of liberal acceptance, among other things (somewhat sloppily) drawing comparisons between Martin’s reaction to Billy’s homosexuality and his own actions.
Yet during swathes of the arguments that provide the thrust of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? it is all too easy to forget the specific nature of Martin’s infidelity. One partly suspects this is by design, Albee seeking to obscure the line between acceptable and unacceptable transgression; the language is deliberately chosen to evoke a traditional marital affair. But it also ends up having the side effect of neutering what should make the narrative so provocative. It is only in the final 20 minutes or so – where the abstracted bestiality is joined by flirtations with paedophilia and incest (though the weight these terms carry is too leaden for the point Albee is trying to make) – that the piece moves from being an intellectual exercise to something more challenging.
Perhaps this would happen earlier if Ian Rickson’s production wasn’t so oddly calibrated, playing up the eccentricities of Albee’s characters to the detriment of the narrative’s nuances. Chief culprit in this regard is Lewis, who seems to have taken his cues from the Al Pacino School of Big Acting. In the opening scene especially, there is an unpleasant mugging quality that skews uncomfortably close to multi-cam sitcom territory. He does improve as the play goes on, largely thanks to the strength of the performances from Sophie Okonedo, who rivals Imelda Staunton (currently in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a few streets over) in her pained, witty rage, and Archie Madekwe, who is remarkably assured in his professional stage debut.
The seriousness with which Martin’s feelings for his farmyard paramour are treated means the ending, which strips away the talk of taboo to focus instead on emotional betrayal, has an undoubted power. It is disappointing, then, that much of what comes before is so inelegantly executed.
Photo: Johan Persson
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 24th March until 24th June 2017. Book your tickets here.
Watch the trailer for The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia here:
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