Friday, 7 April 2017

Review The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia

A wonderful cast, director and designer cannot totally redeem for Francis Beckett a play that milks one idea over the course of nearly two hours.

The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia
by Edward Albee

For The Kid

A man is having an affair and his wife finds out. It’s a commonplace story. Except that the co-respondent is a goat.

That’s all really. Except that the couple’s gay son is as shocked and angry as his mother, and there’s a rather melodramatic denouement which I shall not disclose.

As it happens, just around the corner from the huge, splendid Haymarket Theatre, you can see Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, also featuring a husband and wife tearing chunks of flesh out of each other, at the much less grand Harold Pinter Theatre. I have not yet seen that production, but it’s a magnificent play, and I wondered whether Who Is Sylvia would match up to it.

It doesn’t. It’s entertaining, gut-wrenching in parts, and magnificently served by cast and production team, but Who is Sylvia? is not Albee at his best.

There is a lot of clever, witty dialogue, and the comic possibilities of a distinguished architect explaining his sexual liaison with a goat are milked mercilessly.

Making him erudite and pedantic is also a useful way of getting additional laughs from the situation. It allows the author to have him interrupt the most emotional or horrified outpouring with a grammatical correction.

Having him go to a support group provides a richly comic scene, beginning with his wife’s description of it as “goatfuckers anonymous.” Of course, all the people at the support group have had affairs with different animals.

A lot of the time, it’s wonderful fun.  My fear is that Albee intended the play to be something much more elevated than wonderful fun. Every so often I felt I discerned a message creeping malignantly around, but I was never sure what it was.

But Albee did subtitle it “Notes Towards a Definition of Tragedy”, and a programme note from Dr Helen Eastman of Oxford University tells us the play looks “right back to ancient Greek tragedy and reinvents the form for our chaotic times.” I expect it does, squire, but I’m damned if I saw it.

“No doubt” continued Dr Eastman “it made Albee smile that the word ‘tragedy’ (trag-ōdia) in ancient Greek  literally means ‘goat song."  No doubt it did.

What I saw was quite an entertaining evening at the theatre, watching over-the-top but mostly almost believable characters.

In less capable hands, I fear this play could be tedious, for it makes one idea stretch almost to breaking point.  But director, designer and cast combined to make this a truly magnificent production.

As architect and wife, Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo turn in wonderful, noisy, hilarious, sensitive performances.

In the hands of these masterly performers, simple events like Lewis forgetting the name of an old friend’s son or Okonedo smashing a plate in anger can make you laugh and cry at the same time.  And though it is an all-English cast, the American accents of all four actors are flawless.

Director Ian Rickson makes the best possible use of the space, of the actors, and of Rae Smith’s brilliant set, all spacious living and bare brick, unmistakeably the home of a prosperous American architect.

Not quite top marks, but an amber/green light for an interesting and entertaining evening at the theatre, watching top-class actors at the top of their game.

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