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The Goat

by on 31 March 2019

Caprine Caprice

The Goat

or Who Is Sylvia?

by Edward Albee

Arena Theatre at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 30th March, then on tour until 29th May

Review by Celia Bard

I first became aware of this question ‘Who is Silvia? What is She’ in the play Two Gentlemen of Verona, written by William Shakespeare. Edward Albee provides us with his own 21st century account of the same question.

Goat (Consellations) Promo

Arguably Albee has something else in common with Shakespeare other than his use of the same question and that is his interest in bestiality, but with a difference. For example in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania falls in love with Bottom after his head metamorphoses into that of a donkey’s. In the play The Goat, our protagonist, falls in love with a goat, but that is where the similarity ends. Shakespeare’s play is a comedy, and it is fanciful. There is no question that you are in the world of make believe, a world controlled by fairies. Shakespeare tells the story of young Athenian lovers, a group of mechanicals and fairies. Any thoughts of sexual deviancy as seen between Titania and Bottom is viewed as comedic, light-hearted, and mischievous. Although there is a great deal of comedy in The Goat, the same cannot be said of Martin and Sylvia where the relationship falls into the arena of sexual deviance, though the audience is spared the actual physical sordid details of intercourse. The play tears apart any semblance of social norms relating to an extra marital affair. What occurs between Martin Grey and Sylvia goes well beyond what is considered acceptable by society, the audience is asked to consider the sexual relationship between a man and a goat, and this is a hard task for any audience.

The setting of the play lulls the audience into a false sense of security. The trendy black chairs suggest that we are in the living room of an educated, comfortable, middle-class, trendy family. The cast consists of four characters: Martin Grey, a successful architect; his wife, Stevie; their 17 year old gay son who is at College; and Ross Tuttle, a close family friend and host of a television programme. To all intents and purposes Martin, played by Matthew Ellison, and Stevie, played by Lotte Fletcher-Jonk, are a happily married couple of some 23 years. They are casual in conversation, joke a lot and their sex life is good, judged by their conversation, Stevie’s flirtatious behaviour and sexual innuendos in the opening scene. There are however signs of strain in Martin. Despite the jesting, he appears ill at ease and forgetful. In casual conversation he comments that he is having an affair with a goat. The audience, like Stevie, can be forgiven for thinking that this is light-hearted banter. She laughs aloud and jokingly responds that she off to the pet shop to buy some food.

Just before Stevie leaves, Ross arrives at the Grey’s house ready to tape an at-home interview with Martin. During a lull in the taping, tells Ross of his transgression. This secret once fully comprehended by Ross and then Stevie, after Ross informs her in a letter, turns this comfortable, middleclass home into a combat zone. Any illusion of normality dissolves. Martin’s secret is dramatic and is threatening to both his family and career, and he has a lot to lose, having just won the prestigious Prizker price and the contract to design a very large city community complex.

All three adult actors give excellent performances. The dialogue is fast moving, they are quick to pick up on each other’s cues and are superb at building up dramatic tension, holding the audience in suspense. This play demands strong physical action and movement, and the actors don’t disappoint. Direction is sound, good use is made of the stage and the director unquestionably has a good grip of play content, and stage and acting strategy.

Lotte Fletch-Jonk is outstanding as Stevie. Her performance is spell-binding, able to convey intense emotion whether it is anger, horror, disbelief, realisation and then eventually revenge. Her vocal range is impressive, as is the way she is able to shape her speeches, the highs, and the lows. She is totally immersed in this character, so it is quite a shock when she comes to take her bow at the end of the performance and smiles disarmingly at the audience.

Mathew Ellison as Martin provides a perfect behavioural contrast. On the whole an understated performance, given to occasional bouts of anger. He succeeds in depicting a character totally detached from his own feelings, that is until he experiences an epiphany with Sylvia. He knows that he is behaving in an amoral way, is ashamed of the act, but doesn’t feel guilty. He is surprised when he attends a therapy group with people who share his same peculiarity that he feels different to them. Whereas they feel guilty, he doesn’t: they are going there to be cured. He rejoices in his new-found relationship and doesn’t want it to stop. In the opening scenes he displays a preoccupation, and forgetfulness, which may be explained away by the secret he has to keep for fear of retribution. The other explanation is that suffers from the beginnings of dementia and this is having an effect on his sexual urges. Martin is a complex character and Matthew captures the disturbed and tormented dimensions of him well.

Ross is played by Ancor Figueras Ramos who gives a strong performance. The friendship between him and Martin is long standing, some forty years, starting when they were both ten. One aspect of his performance that slightly jars is Ancor’s European accent, which felt that he hadn’t been in England for long. He is, however, extremely convincing, at first wanting to help Martin by finding out what is troubling him, but then totally disgusted, horrified, and shocked when he finally realises that Martin is ‘having it off’ with a goat, i.e. Sylvia.

The gay teenage character Billy, played by Stephanie Brewer adds another dimension to the play. It is perhaps no coincidence that the couple’s off-spring is called ‘Billy’, a name often word associated with a male goat. The kiss between father and son plus Martin’s dialogue about holding a baby and feeling a sexual urge arouse uncomfortable thoughts in minds of audience. Stephanie acted this part with intelligence and sincerity, but for me this role does need to be played by young male and Stephanie undoubtedly is female. This broke the suspension of belief that is needed for the drama.

The Goat is a difficult play to watch, often stomach churning, no taboos, nothing is off limit, but it does succeed in raising questions about the nature of human beings and the relationship between the intellect, sexual desire, and uncontrollable sexual urges. To complicate things Martin make it quite clear that his feelings for Sylvia are more than just a sexual urge. He talks about having an epiphany on first seeing Sylvia on the farm in the countryside and gazing into her eyes. Shakespeare touches on this theme in The Tempest and in the character of Caliban, who has some of the beautiful, poetical lines in the play, but is depicted as bestial by Prospero and imprisoned, because of his urge to sexually assault Miranda. The audience left with the question: not who is Sylvia, but who is Martin and how could this educated, creative, happily married, sordid, tragic man behave in such a bestial manner? If Martin represents human kind, a greater question is an old age one “What piece of work is Man!” [Hamlet (2.2.295-302), Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.]

Celia Bard
March 2019

Photography courtesy of Arena Theatre, Constellations, 2017

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