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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Goats
Royal Court Theatre  Autumn-Winter 2017

Syrian playwright Liwaa Yazji has something important to say in Goats. It's not especially original and it is not said especially effectively, but she deserves credit for the intention. 

Unfortunately both the play and Hamish Pirie's production are too flaccid, rhythmless and unfocused to do full justice to the playwright's ambition. 

The subject is war. Yazji is against it, though not just for the usual reasons. Yes, young men die, parents grieve and national resources are squandered. But even worse in her eyes, war breaks down the social contract between a government and its people. 

Lies are told in the name of morale, lives are wasted in the name of strategy and values are corrupted in the name of nothing more than keeping the war going. 

Our boys are Martyrs while theirs are Terrorists, every defeat is declared a victory, every grieving parent rewarded with the gift of a goat to replace a child, and every death spun into a call for ever-younger teenagers to join the army. 

A village seems to have given considerably more than its fair share of sons to the war, and regularly-scheduled ceremonies celebrating the latest batch of martyrs are watched over by the local party leader and the state-run media. 

Only when a couple of parents begin to resist the call to celebrate their sons' deaths does the whole construct begin to crumble a bit. And when one soldier actually returns alive (through the expedient of running away) awful truths about the war begin to be spoken aloud. 

Will the government regain control, rewrite history and re-impose their version of reality on everyone, and at what further cost?

If the play were able to keep its eye on those questions it might be more effective. But, perhaps in the name of naturalism, every scene is allowed to wander off-topic as characters are momentarily distracted by side issues or everyday life, and important or shocking revelations risk getting lost in the background noise. 

The play is too leisurely and circular in its structure, making most of its points within the first half-hour or so and then just re-making them, with diminishing rather than accumulating effect, for an additional two hours. 

Meanwhile Hamish Pirie's staging is oddly enervated, with too few scenes able to underscore their major points or to build to any intensity rather than just trailing off. 

Some in the international cast are clearly uneasy about acting in English, while a general pattern of stumbling over lines, missing cues and seeming unsure about where they're meant to be standing – along with the difficulties of corralling the six actual goats wandering about the stage through much of the action – give the whole production far too tentative an air.

'In war, truth is the first casualty' wrote Aeschylus. Goats takes two and a half hours to say not much more much less effectively.

Gerald Berkowitz

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