Review: The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Modern drama, for me, often evokes the same reaction as modern art does. I consume it, I often enjoy it, but I also am left wondering ‘why?’. Why would someone make something like that? Or, write something like that, in the case of theatre. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? prompts these questions almost immediately. Why write a play that centres on an intelligent, liberal man engaging in a love affair with a goat?

Writer of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Tony award-winning play everyone’s heard of, if not seen – Albee tests us, the audience, through Martin (Damian Lewis) and his sudden participation in bestiality. He uses the most unspoken of sexual taboos to truly push our acceptance, and as Martin tells Ross (Jason Hughes) ‘for all your left-wing proletariat bullshit – you’re a snob’, Albee calls us out on our disgust.

Directed by Ian Rickson, The Goat follows Martin as the details of his sordid relationship with a farmyard animal are revealed to his rightly furious wife Stevie, portrayed excellently by Sophie Okonedo, and their son Billy, played by Archie Madekwe making his West End debut.

Lewis is bumbling as Martin but passionate in his love for Sylvia, and with all his added oddball quirks and twitches he is the patriarch of the perfect modern family. An architect with a stylish and witty wife, beautiful home and trendy son in Commes des Garcon trainers, how much more open-minded can he become? How open-minded is too open-minded? We find out as his family struggle to accept Martin’s confession, much to his confusion, and the audience do too.

Okonedo is impulsive and destructive as Stevie, and I imagine she has great fun throwing and breaking the abstract vases and clay pots that litter their home, (how many sugar-glass bowls have been created for the two month run, I wonder) demolishing the set every night in pure rage. Madekwe is understandably bewildered and the proud owner of a bizarre Oedipus complex as their son, Billy, and as he hints at another huge sexual taboo – incest – we wonder just how far Albee will push us, and hope it isn’t any further.

With set design by Rae Smith, the modern home matches the contemporary family, with the only sign of nature being a perfectly preened bunch of flowers sitting on a desk, and the ivy hanging outside the window, begging to get in – a nod to our overbearing animalistic desires, nature taking its course.

The Goat is a peculiar but enjoyable little play. It’s an absurd reflection of reality, but a reflection nonetheless. Albee said in an interview in 2001 ‘any play that can be explained in a few sentences shouldn’t be any longer than that’, and The Goat is certainly something that can’t be explained, in just a few sentences or otherwise.

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until June 24.

Photo: Johan Persson