The Theatreguide.London Review
Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
Haymarket Theatre Spring 2017
Edward Albee's The Goat is not about a goat, and it was when I realised that that I understood what a major, important and courageous play it is.
And Ian Rickson's new production not only captures all its passion and power, but provides us with some of the finest acting London is likely to see this year.
Some people – mercifully not everyone – will someday face having the existential rug pulled out from under them. Something will happen that cannot possibly happen according to all they know about how the universe operates. But it will undeniably happen, which will mean that everything they thought they knew must be wrong.
It might be a loss of faith or a religious conversion, a betrayal by a trusted other or just a fact that redefines everything that came before. And, proving once more that he is a great writer and not just a clever one, Albee explores this frightening territory in The Goat and offers us a vocabulary with which to think the unthinkable if we have to deal with it ourselves.
A man drives down a country road and sees a goat in a field, and suddenly all the known laws of nature are suspended as he falls instantly, passionately and carnally in love.
How this impossible event affects him, and those around him when they learn of it, is the subject of the play. And it is because it is their responses that matter that I can say the play is not really about the goat.
Given the same stimulus – something that cannot possibly be true is true – the four characters of the play react differently. The man himself proves that he has moved so fully into the new reality that it is now the shock and resistance of the others that most disorient him.
His wife responds with rage at a betrayal that doesn't date just from that meeting in a field, because if her husband can say he loves this goat then she must redefine whatever it was that he had been telling her he felt for her.
Their teenage son, going through some sexual confusion himself, just wants home to be the safe and steady place home is supposed to be, and senses it slipping away. And a friend chooses the easiest path, withdrawing into a conventionally self-righteous moral indignation that saves him from really having to think at all.
Albee's frank exploration of these powerful emotions inevitably raises some nervous titters in the audience, and there is also some deliberate humour, as these people are the sort who will pause a passionate outburst to correct each other's grammar or salute a particularly felicitous turn of phrase.
But what is mainly there before us is a great deal of pain and a kind of guidebook in possible ways to cope with it.
Each of the three main characters (the friend being easily dismissed as cowardly) is given the opportunity to experience overpowering feelings and to explore and express them eloquently.
The husband/father has had a head start on the others, and Damian Lewis shows his earnest struggle to put into words an experience he's only just come to grips with himself.
It is very much to Lewis's credit that the man is never ridiculous and never unsympathetic as we watch his sincere effort to report back from a universe different from the one everyone else inhabits.
The wife's reaction is rage, at him and at the way everything he says calls into question everything she thought was true about their lives up to now. Sophie Okonedo delivers some of the most passionate outbursts of the play with frightening power while at the same time making it always clear that it is pain more than anger that is speaking.
And while Jason Hughes serves the play generously in the thankless role of the friend, newcomer Archie Madekwe as the boy paints a very sympathetic portrait of the one character least equipped to deal with events still trying his hardest not to be destroyed by them.
Playing just around the corner is a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, an early Albee play that unflinchingly explored the ways people attempt to cope with the painful challenges of life.
The Goat proves that even near the end of his career the playwright had the same determination, courage and dramatic power, and this superb production does the playwright full justice.
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