When the World Is Closing In

Edward Albee: The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London (Director: Ian Rickson)

By Sascha Krieger

„Notes toward a definition of tragedy“. This is the subtitle Edward Albee gave his 2002 Tony and Pulitzer winning play The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? What he was clearly interested in here is how the Aristotelian idea of tragedy can relate to and be transported into our enlightened, free, individualistic and democratic present days? A great man’s downfall at the hands of fate due to transgressions he might not even be in control of – how is that even conceivable today? He wasn’t the first to ask these questions in the modern age: Tennessee Williams‘ plays often test tragedic structure – interestingly often with female characters in the „hero’s“ role – Arthur Miller conceived Death of a Salesman as a modern tragedy, replacing the „great“ with the „ordinary“ man. Albee’s focus is different: he looks at what a „transgression“ triggering the mechanics of tragedy might be today and he asks society whether it has completely shade its taboo-enhancing, punishing nature yet. The answers he comes up with in The Goat are rather terrifying.

Theatre Royal Haymarket (Image: Sascha Krieger)

At the centre of it all is Martin. Just turned 50, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession as an architect. However, he – the devoted husband and father, enjoying a wonderful, lively, inspiring relationship with his smart, witty and empathetic wife, exemplified in the play’s light-hearted exposition – has transgressed. He has fallen in love – not with another woman, not with a man, no, with a goat. Once the revelation is out, the questions posed are quickly answered. The liberal society Albee depicts has not done away with taboos, has not removed moral boundaries, has not given up on ostracisation as a punishment, not ceded its power to define what is acceptable and what is. It has merely shifted the boundaries – and entrenched them even more. the treatment it used to dish out against, for example, homosexuals, is now preserved for other sexual transgressions, sexuality still being morality’s favourite playing field – and a crucial battleground for society to exert its power. While Martin’s gay teenage son Billy is now on the right side of the moral consensus, his father clearly is not. He is condemned by his supposedly best friend who takes on the role of morality’s avenger, fought every inch by his wife who could forgive him „normal“ adultery but proves incapable of even trying to understand what happened – and even the son is rather reluctant to come around to accepting his father’s behaviour.

Ian Rickson’s production accentuates the play’s tragedic potential. While it starts as a domestic comedy, it focuses from the start on the self-deception and narrow-mindedness of a society’s representatives that has never given up its idea of confining freedom with in a strict set of rules. Damian Lewis‘ Martin jumps back and forth between the almost caricature-like public persona of a successful liberal man in control of his life and an existential confusion that we only gradually understand. The fumbling man who believes he might have Alzheimer’s is in fact struggling with opposing forces: his love, his feeling that what he is doing is right, and his knowledge that it is condemned by society, a condemnation a part of himself has internalised. When he talks of his feelings, his eyes begin to shine, his voice to soften, his identity suddenly to (re)form. As his world falls apart, he seems to grow. Confidence and utter despair remain in a balance though, the inner life being opposed by society’s anger and the threat his wife might leave him. After the brick walls of Rae Smith’s evenly coolly modernist and warmly inhabited set have widened, they are – combined with a gradual darkening of the stage from scene to scene (lighting design: Neil Austin) – closing in again. When the human soul grows in places it’s not supposed to, the world can get narrow.

Sophie Okonedo plays Stevie, the couples other half. Confident, challenging, witty, she is the life as well as the heart and soul – probably the brains, too – of this household. Her assertive playfulness transforms into existential pain and boundless anger as she hardens, grows violent, yet exhibits the same kind of universal loneliness her husband professes to. His tragedy is his, too, her inability to understand and relate as much a product of the rules she has had to internalise. Without the love her husband feels, she, unlike him, has nothing else to go on. Which makes her response so much more savage, so much more brutal. Jason Hughes’s a more one-dimensional Ross whose main purpose is to serve as the spokesperson of a society whose „tolerance“ is just a ploy (his thinly veiled and seemingly friendly Homophobia is nicely worked out).

While Archie Madekwe gives an impressive stage debut as Billy and hints quite expertly at his own character’s struggle between self-protective holding back and the desire to explore his identity in a cautiously friendly-seeming world, his performance could have done with a little more subtlety and a little less assertiveness. His character’s potential to be a revealing mirror image of his father revealing society’s hypocrisy and arbitrariness used as a power instrument, is not entirely fulfilled. His, however, are the night#s final words. After Stevie has exacted her revenge, after she and Martin have gone rigid, he asks from the back of the stage, his confidence gone, his fear obvious, his love shaken (here is all the subtlety in Madekwe’s acting he cannot always muster): „Mom? Dad?“ There is no response as the walls close in the world becomes dark.

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