NOTE: The following review dates from February 2004 and this production's original run at London's Almeida Theatre.
Edward Albee has long applied his dramatic scalpel to exposing and exploding the games that bind and the lies that unwind between married couples.
In 1998, the Almeida gave the world premiere to Albee's The Play About the Baby - a brittle re-visiting of his most celebrated play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that likewise questioned what was reality and what was life-sustaining illusion. But now, in what could have been called "The Play About The Goat", Albee offers his most sensational, not to mention sensationalist, entry in a narrowly focused but intensely examined dramatic canon.
In The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia?, the couple in question may play witty, pithy word games with each other like verbal ping-pong, but there's a very real crisis between them. Their apparently secure, comfortable marriage of 22 years is about to be detonated by the revelation that Martin, a prize-winning architect who has just celebrated his 50th birthday, is having an affair.
But it's not just any affair. While scouring the countryside to buy a farm house, 60 miles from the city, he's stopped at the crest of a hill to admire the view, and was about to get in the car when he saw her: "just looking at me...with those eyes of hers, and -".
It's not giving away too much to say that the object of his love turns out to be a goat. But the conviction with which Martin talks of her means that this isn't another of Albee's games but a real, distressing love that Martin can't fully comprehend himself. In a series of bruising encounters - between the husband and his wife, then the husband and his gay 17-year-old son, and the husband and his former best friend and confidant - Albee writes of the irrationality of love and the grip of despair that takes over as something irreversible happens and shatters the quiet certainties of the lives of everyone affected.
It's a play that treads a fine line between its overpowering emotions and the breaking of strong taboos that is wildly and fiercely provocative, yet is also frequently funny and which should ultimately be as moving as it is shocking. It requires a delicate balance (to quote the title of another Albee masterpiece) to be struck between such extremes, and I'm not sure that Anthony Page's production fully reconciles them.
While the Broadway production - the original cast of which featured Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl, with Bill Irwin and Sally Field subsequently replacing them - provided beautifully judged pairings in both casts that I saw, part of the problem here is that Jonathan Pryce and his real-life wife Kate Fahy don't deliver the same degree of tension or, more surprisingly, intimacy. Fahy simply registers (understandable) outrage; Pryce, merely regret at having his secret revealed.
There's more shading in Eddie Redmayne's appealingly confused teenage son, and Matthew Marsh's defensive friend. But without the fire and passion of the central duo, the play threatens to fizzle rather than sizzle. That it still grips is a testament to vibrancy and daring of the play rather than the players.
- Mark Shenton