REVIEW: THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? (Theatre Royal Haymarket) ★★★★

The Goat or Who Is Sylvia

Edward Albee has taken over London’s Haymarket, with two of his productions around the corner from one another, both of which are violent, distressing and difficult for both the actor and the audience member. Winner of the Tony Award for Best New Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? hasn’t been revived since its London debut at the Almeida in 2004. Yet unlike its neighbour Virgina Woolf, the plot is ahead of its main star-power on stage.

Martin (Damian Lewis) is an award-winning architect celebrating his 50th birthday with his wife Stevie (Sophie Okoendo). But whilst these celebrations surround him, it’s another matter that he’s intoxicated by. He admits to having an affair but to someone unexpected, or something rather. A goat, that he names Sylvia.

Now, whilst the majority of the audience consistently laughed at Lewis’ initial confession, I began to doze off, being honest at Albee’s unrealistic plot, whilst trying to figure out if this ‘goat’ was a metaphor that I should be concentrating on. Turns out not. Lewis is actually screwing over his wife with a goat, with Sophie Okoendo beginning to smash her personal possessions around Rae Smith’s majestic set. However, once you begin to succumb to Lewis’ storytelling of his new-found relationship, you cannot help but become gripped and constantly surprised by Albee’s script.

At first, Lewis’ performance is incredibly robotic. Whilst the easy part for him should have been acting professional when talking about his architectural work with a TV interviewer in the first scene, Lewis’ overly nasal accent and sharp movements make him irritating to both watch and listen to initially. Granted, Albee’s script is one-worded and static at the top, sporadic between each character in the initial dialogue, yet it’s the scenes of physical chaos that allow Lewis to become all the more believable.

Gradually, themes of pedophilia and the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality become apparent, particularly when Lewis argues with his wife, ‘Is there anything in the world that we don’t get off on?’ There is a point when the comedy turns all the more serious when Sophie Okoendo crawls onto her knees and claims to be on the same status as an animal towards her husband. Furthermore, Lewis later goes on to support his son, Billy (Archie Madekwe), in his stress, which leads to a temporary kiss between the two. Albee constantly questions the audience as to what point their morality takes over their sense of humour.

This challenging material allows Sophie Okoendo to truly shine throughout. She is confident in her movement around the living space, leaving the audience not knowing what her next physical move might be in her gradual destruction of both herself and the set. Her blunt head-on attitude towards Lewis’ affair allows her balance between wit and grit to balance perfectly.

It’s an unbelievable story, in both the literal and turn of phrase. Saying that, I can’t say I enjoyed it. I can say that I was disturbed, gripped and constantly surprised once the violent exchanges began, but I can’t say that I liked a play about Damian Lewis having a sexual affair with a goat. An acquired sense of humour is required, making Albee’s script quite marmite. Once you allow yourself to take the story seriously, which for me took nearly the first half, you naturally surrender yourself to Lewis’ storytelling. By then, this 110 minute one-act production flies by and reminds you that whilst The Goat was one of the last of Albee’s plays, he certainly still had it by the end of his career.

Reviewed by Barry O’Reilly
Photo: Tristram Kenton

The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia plays at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 June 2017. Book tickets

The Goat or Who Is Sylvia