What a strange, unnerving and uncomfortable play Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is. It’s an unsettling comedy with tragic undertones whose constant references to Greek drama attempt to intellectualise and make palatable the taboo subject of bestiality.
As the stage lights come up, we are in familiar territory – a tastefully furnished suburban living room, complete with an Eames chair. Whoever lives in a house like this has to be successful, affluent and cultured. And so it proves. Martin (Damian Lewis) is a prize-winning, middle-aged architect currently involved in a billion-dollar project to build a brand new city in the Kansas wheat fields. He has been happily married to Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) for over 20 years and has a teenage son Billy (Archie Madekwe), who is gay.
Though Martin isn’t happy about his son’s sexuality and is convinced it’s only a phase the boy is passing through, something else is clearly distracting him. Is it the memory loss he has recently been experiencing? It turns out to be far more serious. He has fallen hopelessly in love with a goat (yes, a goat!) he calls Sylvia. He confides this shattering revelation to Ross (Jason Hughes), a photojournalist and his oldest friend who, in turn, insensitively imparts the shocking news to Stevie through the post.
The emotional tsunami that follows builds to a shattering climax in which an uncomprehending, irreparably distraught Stevie vents her fury on every object in the living room she can lay her hands on, including a cherished painting by Stevie’s mother.
So much for the narrative surface of the play. Beneath the seismic shocks lies the play’s raison d'être as it questions the nature of love and human sexuality. Martin may be borderline homophobic, yet falling profoundly in love with a goat feels natural and right to him. And who are we to judge him? There are disturbing moments when two other taboos – sex with an infant and incest – are briefly raised. “Is there anything you people don’t get off on?” Martin’s friend Ross asks in disgust? “Is there anything anyone doesn’t get off on?” is Martin’s response.
Staged in three scenes without an interval, the play, although very funny in parts, is not an easy watch and, on occasion, draws inappropriate laughter or uneasy giggles from the audience to hide their obvious discomfort or even revulsion. Passing moral judgment when we all have guilty secrets is never easy to do, and Albee cunningly milks this unease by asking questions for which he refuses to provide answers.
It’s a brave, raw, nerve-jangling evening powerfully staged by Ian Rickson in an attractive set by Rae Smith, whose outer walls close in at the end of the play to symbolise that Martin’s revelations have choked the life out of him and his family.
Lewis, suffering from a pierced eardrum and reportedly in agony at the opening performances, is thoroughly convincing as a man obsessed and preoccupied with a situation only he can accept. Okonedo as his hapless wife summons up all the rage the role demands. Madekwe (in the part that brought instant stardom to Eddie Redmayne in 2004) effectively nails his character’s pain and confusion. As the underwritten Ross, Hughes does the best he can.
Though The Goat isn’t up there with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or A Delicate Balance, it’s one of Albee’s better later plays, and this fine revival is definitely worth catching.