Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – until 24 June 2017
Guest reviewer: Franco Milazzo
No sooner does Edward Albee die, than two of his most famous works hit the London stage: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf opened last month while The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia followed this week. Aspiring playwrights should not read too much into this.
In Conleth Hill and Damian Lewis, both productions feature British actors who came to prominence as duplicitous men in popular American TV series; Hill is best known as Game Of Thrones’ scheming Varys while The Goat’s Lewis played an American soldier with a mission in Homeland. This casting isn’t coincidental: Albee expertly crafts roles that often become far more than they initially appear to be and have than a passing acquaintance with moral ambiguity and deception.
Opposite Lewis is Sophie Okonedo, another British actress who found fame abroad in a similar role. In Australian drama The Slap, she was the wife of a middle-aged man in love with a teenager; here, she plays Stevie. the wife of prizewinning architect Martin who is conducting an affair with a goat called Sylvia (a real goat, in case you were wondering, not some metaphorical creature). Rounding off the cast is their mutual friend Ross (Jason Hughes) and gay son (Archie Madekwe).
It’s an absurdist work to be sure, but one which allows for some intense interplay between all characters. Once she discovers her husband’s infidelity, Stevie is the most fascinating of all the characters to watch. Her portrayal of wrath incarnate, ranting and raving while utterly destroying her husband’s possessions, is an evil joy.
Albee’s use of language is a mixed bag. At times, it is sharp and insightful; at others, it is brutal and uncompromising. Too often, though, Albee overplays his hand and hammers his point too far and for too long. Lewis and Okonedo do phenomenal work keeping the intensity levels high for extended periods but a good third of the script is surplus to requirements; there are only so many times we need to loudly hear from all parties that Martin is “f*****g a goat” with various levels of disbelief, disgust and grief.
Ultimately, this is a case of top-drawer acting being let down by a text which, while being provocative and engaging, is over-long and padded out.