The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Harold Pinter Theatre
There are two married couples at war currently on the London stage. Although the plays they each inhabit were written four decades apart, both were written by the late American dramatist Edward Albee, who is up there with Strindberg and Ibsen when it comes to depicting marital hell.
In James Macdonald’s superbly acted production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), Imelda Staunton is monumental as the terrifyingly truthful Martha. Her history lecturer husband George (Conleth Hill) has failed to advance his career despite being married to the daughter of the man who runs the New England university where the couple live and work. Her punishments for his failure come in the form of stabbing humiliations delivered during the play’s real-time three hours of alcohol-fuelled bruising banter.
Their guests Nick (Luke Treadaway), a young, ambitious college professor and his meek, polite wife Honey (Imogen Poots) become collateral damage and leave like walking wounded.
Its surprising conclusion is that a kind of love does exist between Martha and George, albeit expressed in withering and brutal brickbats. And there is a future, too, but it will be lived in an emotionally barren landscape, among the shards and ruins of the life they once imagined, much like the couple in Albee’s later play, The Goat (2000).
This drama is as darkly funny as Albee’s earlier, more famous play. Though ultimately it is more polluting than enriching; more brilliant sketch than masterpiece. Also, the conflict between top architect Martin and his wife Stevie is sudden rather than insidious.
Terrifically played in Ian Rickson’s production by Sophie Okonedo and Damian Lewis, the couple have enjoyed decades of happy marriage and have an astoundingly well adjusted teenage son (Archie Madekwe) to prove it. But life in their elegantly furnished brownstone townhouse is devastated when it emerges that the increasingly absent-minded Martin has fallen head over hooves in love and lust with a goat.
The extent of his infatuation is clarified when the best friend to whom Martin confesses, asks if his relationship with the animal — aka Sylvia — has been consummated. Lewis delivers the answer with impeccable timing, preceding it with a scandalised hesitation that lulls us into a false sense that there are boundaries, you know. A split second later he confirms the deed in no uncertain terms. “Yes. Sex.”
Okonedo has much the hardest job in the play. From which experience and from what case-history is an actor to draw inspiration? As her Stevie says, how in the life game of anticipating disaster does one prepare? But then, of course, we know that there are other more common disgusting acts. Substitute the goat for a child and suddenly this crisis is relative. To say Albee is being allegorical in that sense is probably to overreach. But, as with Martha and George, the haunting possibility suggested by Rickson’s production is that somehow, despite everything, people carry on.