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Not seen in the West End since 2004, Edward Albee’s problem play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is a mischievous marital drama that uses a superficially ludicrous bestiality story to ask deeper questions about love and lust, social hypocrisy and sexual morality. The combined star power of Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo will sell tickets, but Ian Rickson’s production is fairly conventional and tonally awkward, doing few favors to a late-career work that already hovers uneasily between comedy and tragedy.
Premiered on Broadway in 2002 with Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl in the lead roles, later replaced by Bill Irwin and Sally Field, The Goat won the Tony Award for best play. But it remains something of an exotic curio in Albee’s canon, and a tougher sell than his more feted early work. Faced with the choice between this interspecies love story or Imelda Staunton’s ecstatically well-reviewed star turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is playing literally two blocks away, Albee fans are likely to flock to the latter.
Martin (Lewis) is a 50-year-old prize-winning architect with an apparently perfect life. Blessed with wealth, fame and prestige work projects, he also enjoys an unusually devoted long-term marriage to Stevie (Okonedo). But Martin is also deeply troubled, having recently succumbed to an illicit secret lust. As he confesses to his oldest friend Ross (Jason Hughes), he has fallen in love with a goat called Sylvia, a sexual relationship that he sees as beautiful, romantic and consensual. No kidding. But Ross reacts with angry disgust, sharing the shocking news with Stevie. Then all hell breaks loose as Martin sees his family, reputation and career start to unravel.
An absurdist conceit stretched across three acts, The Goat initially feels like a two-hour variation on Gene Wilder’s interspecies human-sheep vignette in Woody Allen’s episodic 1972 comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex… But Albee takes his outlandish zoophile premise and runs with it, testing the limits of liberal tolerance as he zigzags between tragic and comic modes. It is telling that Martin seems willfully blind to the ethics of bestial behavior, yet thoughtlessly uses homophobic slurs against his own gay teenage son Billy (Archie Madekwe). Albee’s experiences as a gay man may have informed this cynical take on selective sexual morality.
Later in the drama, Martin is drawn into an incestuous kiss and appears to downplay the gravity of pedophilia. Albee famously resisted explaining his work, so his intentions are frustratingly opaque here. Is he trying to challenge complacent theatergoers with taboo subject matter, defend the indefensible, or critique the sort of anything-goes libertine who might attempt such a defense? In any case, the play’s profanity-laced language and provocative themes feel a little muted in 2017, when daily news reports are more shocking than even the most extreme theatrical fantasy.
Lewis brings obvious marquee appeal to Rickson’s production, but he is an awkward fit for the lead role. Not a natural comedian, he compensates with a stylized performance that shades into vaudevillian mugging at times. He also adopts an uneven American accent that sounds distractingly mannered and nasal, falling somewhere between Allen and Jimmy Stewart. If Albee intended Martin to be merely arrogant and hubristic, mission accomplished. But if the audience cannot emotionally invest in his tragic self-delusions to even a small degree, the drama is weakened.
Fortunately, Okonedo picks up much of the slack with a much more magnetic and muscular performance, gear-shifting with ease through a broad emotional range from blissful domestic contentment to wounded devastation to nostril-flaring, plate-smashing, murderous Medea-level fury. Hence the middle act, which is dominated by Stevie’s explosive reaction to news of Martin’s “livestock cruising,” packs the most dramatic heft. The other two acts, when Okonedo is offstage for long stretches, suffer by comparison and drag in places.
Also holding his own impressively in his West End debut is 22-year-old Madekwe, who invests Billy with an authentically adolescent mix of vulnerability, confusion and righteous rage.
Albee subtitled The Goat “Notes toward a definition of tragedy,” drawing heavily on classical Greek tragedy for the play’s structure and language, along with passing nods to Shakespeare. Rickson certainly strives to counterpoint surface comedy with darker dramatic depths, calling on his regular musical collaborator PJ Harvey to mark scene changes with fragments of mournful instrumental folk-rock. There are Oedipal tensions, Freudian power struggles and blood-soaked acts of vengeance onstage. And yet these tragic elements feel more like clever stylistic allusions than deep-seated universal truths. It is difficult to care much as Martin’s gilded world collapses around him, which may be what Albee or Rickson intended, but it makes for oddly low-voltage theater.
The saving graces of this production lie primarily in Okonedo’s powerhouse performance and Albee’s signature rapid-fire duologues, which crackle with wry asides and witty wordplay even during the more heated exchanges. Big laughs are sparse, but there are ample amusing lines.
Rae Smith’s striking set, a stylish open-plan living space of exposed brickwork and stripped wooden flooring, discreetly decorated with Modigliani and Kandinsky, is a smart visual checklist of contemporary bourgeois good taste. The walls expand as the drama heats up, the building itself disintegrating as Martin becomes literally the architect of his own downfall. Plenty of small pleasures, even if the overall package never quite convinces.
Venue: Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Cast: Damian Lewis, Sophie Okonedo, Archie Madekwe, Jason Hughes
Director: Ian Rickson
Playwright: Edward Albee
Set and costume designer: Rae Smith
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: PJ Harvey
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Presented by Mathew Byam Shaw, Nia Janis, Nick Salmon for Playful Productions, Tom Kirdahy, Hunter Arnold
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