The Theatreguide.London Review
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
Almeida Theatre, Winter-Spring 2004; Apollo Theatre Spring-Summer
Edward Albee's latest is a major play, a powerful play, the thrilling return of a great writer to the peak of his form, and the occasion for two deeply moving performances.
Don't let the grotesquery of its surface keep you away. Yes, it's about a man who announces that he has fallen in love with, and been having carnal knowledge of a goat.
But that's just a metaphor. The play is about the life-shattering event, the thing that could never have been anticipated or prepared for, that cannot be undone once it has happened, and that leaves us adrift in anew reality for which we have no definitions or coping mechanisms.
Thankfully, not everyone has such experiences, just as only a few people fall in love with goats, or are told by someone near to them that he has fallen in love with a goat. But undeniably some of us do, be it a loss of religious faith, an unexpected betrayal, a senseless death, a 9/11.
With the courage that only great writers have, Albee faces that monster, shows us what it looks like and - without presuming to offer pat answers - gives us a vocabulary with which to think about the unthinkable.
And it's an exciting, engrossing, passionate - and sometimes very funny - play. Only Albee would have characters pause repeatedly in the midst of exposing their rawest nerves to check their grammar, and only he could find eloquence in characters speechless with horror, rage or despair.
Jonathan Pryce plays a successful and happily married architect who paused in a drive through the countryside, saw a goat, and had all the known laws of the universe disappear on him. As he tries to explain the experience to his wife, his best friend and his gay teenaged son, we watch their worlds shatter as well.
Pryce begins the play oddly absent-minded and distracted, and only gradually lets us discover that what we are watching is a man totally adrift, with no reliable anchor to what we call reality, just because no definition of reality would allow for what has happened to him.
As the play progresses, his desperation grows more open, as his frustration when the others don't understand him is tempered by the realisation that there is no way they possibly could.
While his character's crisis happened offstage in the past, Kate Fahy shows us the wife going through it, as the man she loves tells her something that cannot possibly be true if everything she has known in her life up to this minute is true - and that therefore means that everything she has known as reality up to now has not been true.
Fahy takes us through fear, anger, disbelief and even black humour in a rush of overlapping emotions that is as frightening as it is convincing, all the time making it clear that it is not the goat that is the issue, but the theft of all her sense of herself.
Matthew Marsh as the friend who retreats to the most conventional and thus most useless of stances, and Eddie Redmayne as the son already wrestling with the sexual and identity confusions inherent in adolescence add movingly to Albee's alert that the absolutely unthinkable can happen, and must be dealt with somehow.
The play is directed by Anthony Page with an understanding, sensitivity and theatrical vitality that no director since the late Alan Schneider has been able to bring to Albee.
Edward Albee began his career more than 40 years ago with such powerful and passionate plays as The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, both making us acknowledge, perhaps against our will, that there were people out there experiencing life in almost unimaginably painful ways.
His interests and writing then took a drier, dispassionate direction for several decades. But with The Goat he returns to his youthful mode and high energy.
As with all great drama, it is challenging and threatening, but it is there to tell us something that we need to know. Miss it at your peril
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