Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? - Theatre Royal Haymarket
An office discussion in the day job led me to see this show in the first place, partly because someone is a fan of Damian Lewis, who plays Martin, marking his 50th birthday – or, rather – having it marked, in the bizarrely named The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? And partly because someone else was repulsed by a synopsis of the play, even if she only got as far as this: a man falls in love with a goat. Given that she did not wish to know any further details, she is unaware that he even has relations with it, and [SPOILER ALERT] his wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) finds out about it. The show ends with Stevie dragging the corpse of Sylvia (the said goat) into their house, thus reasserting her (Stevie’s) previous position as Martin’s sole lover. Martin is beside himself at the death of his livestock mistress.
It is, in essence, a comedy, and I didn’t for a moment feel guilty about laughing out loud even when the subject matter was almost irredeemably dark. On one level, what is the difference between this and any other love triangle in which stag shagging two hens separately gets found out? The absurdity in buggery with an animal is the source of much of the play’s hilarity. The implausible situation is created by Brechtian ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ (in its original German), or ‘distancing effect’ – the audience knows this is not real, and is never drawn into believing any of this is real or an effort to portray reality. Having established this deliberate device to keep the audience aware that it is watching a play, and not getting lost in the moment, or anything of the sort, the audience is thus free to chortle, or not, however ridiculous and catastrophic things get in terms of the storyline, and, in this instance, the props, most of which get smashed as Stevie’s anger and frustration boils over.
If there’s a deeper meaning to be found, it’s elsewhere in Theatreland. Dramaturgically, this is ultimately straightforward. Man fucks goat. Man confesses to friend Ross (Jason Hughes) and Ross can’t help but tell Stevie because he is concerned for the welfare of his friend. There’s a row. Stevie wins by murdering the goat. The end. But there’s a subplot, which I thought was a tad underdeveloped, involving Martin and Stevie’s son Billy (Archie Madekwe), who is naturally incredulous that his own father would be having relations with an animal, but realises apart from this one, albeit significant, moral failing, Martin has been a good father. (Or is he? He’s in love with a goat and named his son Billy!)
There are a lot of grammatical and vocabulary corrections along the way, which when I read the script, came across as tedious and pedantic. When three of the four characters are doing it, there isn’t much to distinguish from one another, though I take the point that they are of the same family. Acted as well as they are here, however, the linguistic rectifications are, on the whole, amusing – not every interruption is well received by the audience.
“You have broken me and I will break you,” Stevie emphatically declares, a promise she makes true to Martin in an intense, no interval, equally appalling and enthralling play.