The lead performances and creative values of this production of The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? more than do justice to a play that takes no prisoners and is deliberately intended to divide audiences. However, both combine here to fulfil the higher purposes of Albee’s theatrical craft which for all of its orneriness is undeniably a vital part of what theatre is here to do – to question and discomfort orthodoxies, and to reveal complexity in the place of under-examined, pat conventions.

GoatThis very dark comedy is one of Edward Albee’s last major works, with a first performance date of 2002. It won several awards and amounts to his final statement on many of the themes that run as red threads through the Minotaur’s lair of his dramaturgy.

Like most of his plays it aims to dismantle liberal pieties and shock and discomfort the assumptions and expectations of an audience. But it does so with his usual exquisitely precise verbal gamesmanship and command of ferocious rhetoric, and with more than a nod towards the theory and practice of classical Greek tragedy.

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Indeed, in this sense it is a remarkably knowing work that self-consciously aligns Albee’s stagecraft with Aristotle’s three unities of action, time and place and even with the original meaning of the term tragedy – ‘goat song’.

Just as Greek tragedy sought to find a dramatic form in which to examine contemporary moral dilemmas forensically and get the citizens of Athens to reflect on the connections between drama and real-life questions, so Albee seizes on the boundaries of present-day taboos and uses the plot and the confrontations between the characters to unsettle the audience’s expectations.

GoatWhere are the boundaries between the acceptable and the irredeemably transgressive? Are there really such boundaries at all? Or does it depend entirely on context and subjective nuance? As we seek to understand an apparently unforgiveable action, do we lose or find our moral compass? Is today’s sin no more over time than tomorrow’s eccentricity, or is that notion itself a despicable sophistry?

The defiant hard case that Albee places in front of us this time is bestiality, a subject wholly confronting for us, but perhaps less so for the ancient Greeks as witnessed by the themes of their mythology. Martin (Damian Lewis) is an apparently successful architect with a happy marriage to the charming and gracious Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) and with a gay teenage son, Billy, (Archie Madekwe) who has been brought up in a tolerant and accepting fashion by his apparently model parents.

The play begins as Martin prepares to be interviewed by an old friend Ross (Jason Hughes), a TV journalist. The action runs through three scenes for a continuous one hour and fifty minutes. Ian Rickson directs.

Alongside classicism in Albee’s theatre we have to reckon also with a large dose of the theatre of the absurd, and much of the skill displayed here in both direction and acting resides in the dexterity with which all concerned deftly negotiate the switchback between classical control, the comedic conventions of a family living-room drama, and careful juxtapositions between shocking abnormality and the banalities of everyday life that can combine to produce hilarious absurdity.

GoatThe first scene is a gracious slow-burn saunter through a privileged domestic ménage, played with a light breezy tone, as if it were Coward, who is indeed parodied at one point. However, there are plenty of clues of the dissolution to come, if one knows where to look, and mannerisms established that are going to reappear with a vengeance as the evening progresses.

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As the certainties begin to dissolve one of the many neat observations Albee makes is that in a state of shock we tend to fall back on the framework and niceties of social convention in a wholly absurd fashion. We lack a language in which to discuss or to contain what is taboo and therefore try to use language to restore normality in a wholly absurd way.

Almost against our will initially we find ourselves laughing ourselves out of our shock in the face of bizarre juxtapositions: Ross can find no better word than ‘tidings’ with which to break his revelations, and Stevie gets tied in knots with the grammar of how one refers to a goat, whether as a thing or a person. Thus comedy and dismay can join hands.

The actors have to pace and graduate their performances minutely if this play is to work, and the leads do a superb job under Rickson’s direction in varying the tone and riding the switchback of emotions involved. The two supporting performances are somewhat uneven, though all deserve credit for their work in what is clearly an utterly draining work to perform.

Hughes and Madekwe have reactive roles with rather less to work with than the central duo, but just as with the young couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there are plenty of ways to make an impression. Ross is potentially less of a stolid figure than he is played here, and Madekwe really needs a wider expressive range if he is to do justice to the pain, incomprehension, shock and self-centredness of the teenage son.

GoatOkonedo is extraordinary, as she often is. On the basis of this performance we can readily imagine her as Medea or Hecuba or Phaedra. The central and longest scene is hers and she plays it to perfection, with an operatic virtuosity and exquisite control of hugely demanding materials. She has to embody our reactions of revulsion and incomprehension while demonstrating and embodying the dissolution of her own certainties and indeed personality. It is an exceptional journey, both technically and emotionally.

Lewis has the most difficult role of all, in making a potential figure of revulsion into a sympathetic character. However, he largely succeeds and in a much wider emotional range than he usually allows himself. It is a carefully constructed performance, initially showcasing the breezy, complacent swagger of a successful professional and family man alongside a process of alarming self-discovery that has to reveal at last an awareness of how his actions affect others catastrophically. This is a performance that has all the right lineaments in place and will only grow in affecting detail as the run progresses.

There is a great deal of destruction in the play: crockery, vases, statuary, books and paintings are thrown and smashed with abandon. This is as it should be, not only as a way of punctuating the many long, highly wrought speeches, but also as a powerful visual symbol of the irretrievable psychological and social wreckage taking place.

A lot depends therefore on the design values and Rae Smith’s beautifully detailed set does not disappoint: a gracious brownstone, filled with the luxurious appurtenances of an affluent household, artfully showcased to us with a gentle rake and walls that later pushed back to reflect the scale of events unfolding.

GoatThe ending of this play is a problem, as it often is in an Albee play. Such is the destructive force of his disaggregation that any kind of redemptive conclusion or indeed any conventional tying up of loose ends is out of the question. At best the remaining characters can stumble around dazed in the debris and wreckage they have created around them. That seems entirely right in the case of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?

However, he goes further here in a nod towards the retributive vengeance of the Furies among the Ancient Greeks. This risks disturbing the delicate balance between comedy, tragedy and farce that he has trodden so far and tips the final ten minutes over into melodrama and grand guignol. Ultimately this is undermining of the whole.

The lead performances and creative values of this production more than do justice to a play that takes no prisoners and is deliberately intended to divide audiences. However, both combine here to fulfil the higher purposes of Albee’s theatrical craft which for all of its orneriness is undeniably a vital part of what theatre is here to do – to question and discomfort orthodoxies, and to reveal complexity in the place of under-examined, pat conventions.

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The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…