Saturday, 22 April 2017
The Goat (or Who Is Sylvia?) at Theatre Royal, Haymarket
The last couple of plays I’ve seen have been concerned with marital conflict and Edward Albee wrote them both. Ah, ah, I thought, a playwright whose marriage/s have been tricky to say the least. How wrong of me, because, of course, Edward Albee, who died last year, was gay, so bang goes that theory! And, after all, marriage is just a by-product of what Albee is trying to portray, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf centres around what isn’t said, whilst The Goat concerns transgression against sexual norms. Furthermore they are both about secrets. With The Goat, Albee certainly pushes his ideas further than many playwrights would dare.
Martin (Damian Lewis) is married to Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) and they have one adolescent gay son, Billy (Archie Madekwe). The couple josh and joke and come across as devoted and happily married. But Martin has a secret and, although there is a clue in the son’s moniker, we’re not aware as to what this secret is, until he spills the beans to his friend, Ross (Jason Hughes). And it is quite some secret …… for Martin has fallen in love with a goat, the Sylvia of the title, whom he met whilst searching for a country retreat for himself and his family. This is some mid-life crisis for the soon to be 50 award-winning architect, who has become edgy and forgetful, but refuses to acknowledge that his actions are in any way wrong. Martin’s wife, son and friend may be appalled at the thought that he has resorted to screwing livestock, but all he knows is that he has fallen in love, spiritually and physically.
When the play opens to show Rae Smith’s stylish bare-brick walled drawing room, Damien Lewis is incredibly awkward and ill at ease. He expertly convinces that there is so much on his mind that he is unable to concentrate or focus on anything. It is only when he has unburdened his secret that he loosens up and, calmly and reasonably explains his feelings. What he has been doing for the past six months is not wrong in his eyes and in no way diminishes his love for his wife.
Understandably this cuts no ice with the horrified Stevie, and Sophie Okonedo is compellingly convincing as she tries to come to terms with what is happening. We feel her pain, betrayal and shock and her prolonged howl of despair at one one point is almost too much to bear. There is humour, too, thanks to the fact that the couple are still concerned with each other’s linguistic precision even when various priceless objets d’art are hurled this way and that by the anguished Stevie.
The impressive Archie Madekwe is making his stage debut as the bewildered Billy and handles probably the most difficult scene in the play with a maturity that belies his lack of experience. Jason Hughes as Martin’s moralistic school friend, Ross, is equally effective, as is Ian Rickson’s spot-on direction.
Are we less shocked towards the end of the one-and-three quarter hours than we were at the beginning? Has Albee made us reconsider the relationship between love and sexual desire and the boundaries of tolerance that is acceptable? After all, Martin, finds it very difficult to resist calling his son a faggot. Is this prejudice any better or worse than that against Martin’s love affair with a goat? We can pontificate all we like but the fact is that this production of The Goat, thanks to the expert cast and direction, is great and well worth seeing.