THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Goat or Who is Sylvia?
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Ian Rickson
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Albee, who died last September, is very much in vogue, no bad thing as he is one of the greats. The stunning revival of his classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is round the corner from this revival of his 2002 ‘problem play’. A problem in more ways than one.
First time out at the Almeida in 2004, with Jonathan Pryce in the lead and Eddie Redmayne making his debut, I thought it arid, pedantic and glib. No amount of learned essays about its classical allusions have altered my view.
Director Ian Rickson has assembled a fine cast though who give it their all. Damian Lewis is probably too young, slender and buff to convince as man hitting 50 and mid-life crisis but he brings an intensity to the part which is totally compelling. He has the nit picking habits of a scholar. Sophie Okonedo, as usual, brings a searing intelligence to her role as the cuckolded wife, Stevie, but it’s ultimately one unchanging dirge, like the Trojan Women, constantly bemoaning their fate.
Martin (Lewis) is a privileged prize winning architect who is devising a model city in the Midwest. He has money, success, a happy marriage to the elegant Stevie (Okonedo) and all of the trappings including a vast chic brownstone, forensically furnished with Eames chairs and other objects d’art. His best mate Ross (a wonderfully lively Jason Hughes) is video interviewing him about his Pritzker Prize but Martin is distracted and alarmed at the confusions of old age settling in. He gingerly reveals that he’s been swept off his feet not by a woman but by a goat, Sylvia, who won him over when he spied her while out country-house hunting in upstate New York. Ross spills the beans to Stevie and all hell breaks loose.
Albee uses this arch conceit to question such things as contemporary social morality in relation to taboos, the perception of female identity by contrasting Stevie to Sylvia, and the arbitrary nature of social standards and conventions by juxtaposing Martin's distaste for homosexuality with his own bestiality. Billy, his equally horrified teenage son, a tender and gangling Archie Madekwe, is gay.
It’s all very clever but terribly forced. It wallows in wordplay like a rambling old don after too much port and the points it attempts to make are essentially vapid but dressed up in dinner party chic. We’re living through an astonishing time when the binary nature of gender itself is being contended (more fertile ground than bestiality, I would say), culture wars are everywhere and yet this desiccated piece, which had nothing much to say in 2002 and even less today, is revived. It has all the shock of junior saying f*** at the luncheon table before being banished to his room. It isn’t dark enough to engage as tragedy and its wit isn’t sharp enough to cut through and what’s left is an arid, academic, exercise that makes an audience twitch, slightly.
Rickson’s direction and this great cast do enliven it greatly though and Rae Smith’s designs are spot-on.