Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? burst onto the stage in 2002, winning the Tony and Drama Desk Awards in that same year. I doff my cap to Lion Theatre Company, and to director Katie O’Toole in particular, who have put on one of the greatest works of student theatre I have ever seen. It was a joy to see it back on stage at a time when sexual and gender politics are at the forefront of our collective consciousness.
Act 1 introduces us to Martin, a renowned architect and suburbanite who, on the morning of his 50th birthday, is about to be interviewed by his old friend Ross for TV show “People Who Matter”. He has even been commissioned to elaborate plans for a 27 billion-dollar city of dreams. Things are looking up.
But there’s a catch. In true Aristotelian fashion, Martin has a hamartia. He has fallen in love – completely and irrevocably – with a goat.
Hilarity – and tragedy – ensues. And yet the most remarkable aspect of this play is that, despite its tight focus on bestiality, emphasised even more by the intimate setting of the City Theatre, its reach is much broader than ‘sex with animals’. Albee questions the very nature of societal taboos and, most strikingly, who is in charge of prescribing them. This is not an anthem to sexual intercourse between human beings and faunae, but rather a provocative examination of humanity’s carnal and coital mores.
Special mention must go to fresher Eleanor Hawkins, who played the role of Martin’s wife, Stevie, with a maturity, poise, and simmering resentment that were far beyond her years. This is a challenging part for any actress, but Hawkins displayed a tender and haunting blend of emotions throughout. Even when she was in danger of corpsing (the ‘goat-fucking’ jokes come thick and fast, so it’s easy to sympathise), this did not detract from her spellbinding act. Stevie is, after all, flitting between stunned disbelief, stoic resignation, and an understandably explosive rage upon hearing of such a scandalous deed. Laughter, however incongruous at first glance, seemed like the only viable response.
It is in the second act where she truly comes alive, delivering her lines with a punch and a panache rarely seen in amateur theatre. When she literally smashes a vase of flowers against the back wall, and then proceeds to tear the set to pieces, she controls the character superbly and holds the audience in the tightest of grips.
Kishore Thiagarajan’s Martin, in his frenetic, anxious isolation, provides a solid foil to Stevie’s ire and incredulity. He is at his best when he turns towards the audience, particularly in the first act, to reveal his illicit agrarian lust. The resultant dramatic irony when Stevie does not believe his confession (she even jokes about stopping at the ‘feed store’) is as compelling as it is unbearable. Likewise, when Ross touchingly admits that, despite his best efforts, he cannot understand Martin’s actions, Thiagarajan aroused the most complex of sympathies in his audience. When Martin describes a father getting hard whilst cradling his own baby – yep, The Goat goes there – Ross recoils in reasonable disgust. And yet Martin’s ‘Is there anything anyone doesn’t get off on, whether we admit it or not?’ was delivered with such heartfelt sincerity that it felt odd to incriminate such a flawed character. The play asks us to imagine what we would do if we were suddenly to fall in love, say, with a Martian, or even with something of which we cannot properly conceive. Martin’s own views toward his son’s sexual orientation reek of homophobia, painfully paradoxical given his own agricultural fetish, and the play forces its audience to justify which is the more heinous: incest, paedophilia, or bestiality.
Meanwhile, Barnabas Mercer, with hair slicked back and (extremely topical) red power tie, achieved an accomplished performance as Ross. His delivery was dripping with smooth, Caesar Flickermann-esque rhetoric, and his raillery with Martin was a joy to behold. His best moment is when he sits down at Martin’s table, eager to find out more about this (presumably voluptuous, blonde bombshell) Sylvia. He measures his affected, pretentious ‘Best. Friend.’ in perfect time with his legs, lifted up one by one onto the chair in front. It’s a seamlessly executed moment of real control.
Occasionally one feels that Albee bites off more than he can chew, and the play does feel more like an array of vignettes as opposed to a sustained analysis of the polemical issues at stake. What’s more, there is no doubt that the energy peters out towards the 3rd Act, but this was largely due to Hawkins’s absence on stage. When she does return, however, it is as though a bolt of lightning had just struck the theatre.
Make no mistake: this is a messy, complex, penetrating and passionate play. Comedian Stewart Lee has said that his favourite moment in live comedy is the sound of just one person laughing, and this happens at multiple times during the performance. At once encouraging and destabilising a mirthful response, The Goat jokes and provokes in equal measure, asking its audience to doubt the veracity and suitability of their laughter.
If you do anything vaguely cultural this week, make it this. This is a production that gets under your skin and lives long in the memory.
‘The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?’ will be performed at The City Theatre from Friday, 20th of January until Saturday, 21st of January at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Lion Theatre Company