Goats at the Royal Court Theatre
2017 has seen the Royal Court intent on breaking one of the cardinal rules of showbusiness: don’t work with children or animals. There’ve been geese, rabbits, actual babies and, now, kids (the ones that go baa not waa). Unlike the subtle live magic of The Ferryman and Anatomy of a Suicide, however, Goats is regularly upstaged by its cloven-hoofed gimmick.
Set in the Syrian civil war, the central kernel of the play stems from the sometimes-seen practice of giving the family of a “martyred” soldier livestock as a celebration-cum-consolation. Using this bleak and bizarre image Liwaa Yazji spins a narrative that encompasses fake news, political doublespeak and the brainwashing – both through external forces and self-denial – required to survive a war against ill-defined “terrorists”.
Director Hamish Pirie strains to capture the hazy, perma-paranoid vibe of a village that provides husbands, fathers and sons for the slaughter without having any real idea of what’s going on. Screens flit between anodyne news stories, over-scripted propaganda and a buzzy pink static; transitions blare with Syrian hip-hop and vaguely choreographed movement; and in the second half everything is accompanied by the threatening drone of fridge freezers.
The thing is, neither the sloppy performances – which veer from dodgy to downright bad – nor the stiff writing are sharp enough to withstand this sensory overload. The distance between the audience and the people on stage actually seems to grow as the play progresses; it becomes as unengaging as watching the conflict through clips on the news.
Matters are only made worse when the goats turn up, the herd seriously undermining key scenes by wandering around the stage like silly billies. If you wanted to be really (really) generous you could say that the goats end up acting as a commentary on the ease in which we turn away from international horror. But that’s a stretch – ultimately the animals only add to the irritating busyness of the production.
The Royal Court should be applauded for programming a pair of plays – upstairs is the far superior Bad Roads – that deal with ongoing conflicts normally packaged by Western media with no empathy for what is happening there but with fear for what it means here. And Yazji is very careful to make sure her characters are never some Syrian “other”, but recognisable people (a point best illustrated by the laddish group of teenage boys).
Yet these good intentions mean nowt in the face of the woeful execution. Yazji has made Goats so readily palatable for those who aren’t well versed in the Syrian conflict that the play has lost whatever unique insight got it commissioned in the first place.
Photo: Johan Persson
Goats is at the Royal Court Theatre from 24th November until 30th December 2017. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.