The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

By Jeremy Cliffe Is there anything anyone doesn’t get off on, whether we admit it or not?” In this pithy question the protagonist of Edward Albee’s The Goat expresses the play’s central dilemma: what do we tolerate, and what is taboo? Martin, the superstar architect at the pinnacle of his trade, sits in the living room, his life in tatters; a suitable ending to a drama Albee subtitles “Notes towards a definition of tragedy”.
The opening scene introduces us to Martin (Will Robertson) and his wife Stevie (Sarah Nerger). The pair launches into a convincing, provocative performance, and we are quickly drawn into the world of the ever-so-slightly bohemian denizens of the East Coast bourgeoisie. Those familiar with the patina of the surreal on Albee’s 1962 masterpiece, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? will recognise the style. Yet here the very premise is an absurdity, or at least we would be forgiven for thinking so: Martin is having an affair with a goat named Sylvia. As the play unfolds the animalistic amore is revealed to the audience, his friend Ross (Max Seddon), his wife and his gay son Billy (Tom Coates). Add to the concoction simmering discord and dysfunctional communication, and the result is a Kafkaesque collapse of the superficially harmonious world which we are presented at the outset.
A little way into the play, Ross is distracted by the churning, rushing sounds of the dishwasher. “It’s probably the Eumenides” Martin replies wryly. Indeed, where these mythical deities enforced the prevailing moral order upon the heroes of yore, in Albee’s modern tragedy it is this paradigm of modern domesticity that looms over Martin’s nemesis. But Papa Aristotle would be mighty content with the plot structure. Dramatic unity, a fall from glory, circumstances beyond control, and a suitably cathartic dénouement – the play has it all. Albee creates what the Director Guy Levin describes as “a truly modern tragedy”, suited to our atomised, atheist society through its exploration of where we place the boundaries on love; and bestiality, paedophilia, incest and rape are under the spolight.
Launching on Broadway in 2002, the play reached British audiences in 2004 at Islington’s Almeida Theatre (starring Jonathan Pryce), and in its Oxford première Levin does the work full justice. In the first act Robertson’s dry tone is an excellent counter to the vitality of Nerger’s polished, authoritative but affectionate wife and Seddon’s superbly charismatic television presenter. Robertson maintains a quizzical air, clearly troubled, even alienated. As Ross, camera rolling, introduces his friend on interview, there is a brilliant discord between Martin’s expression of undisguised tedium, lip curled, and Ross’s self-important ramblings (“Some people, I guess, are, well…more extraordinary than others” he contemplates, gazing into middle-distance).
With the revelation of Martin’s capriphiliac dalliances, Nerger comes into her own, lurching manically from incandescent ranting to superior, sarcastic barbs. Meanwhile Coates does well as the slightly affected Billy; between uncomprehending outbursts at his parents he speechlessly grasps at his hair. Robertson tends to be more deadpan than frenetic, more wry than fraught, to the point of occasionally underplaying his role. It’s a point of debate whether this trace of the understated wryness of Robertson’s excellent Berthold Brecht in last Hilary’s Tales from Hollywood restricts his portrayal, but in any case he puts in a fine portrayal of neuroticism and inner sadness.
In all, this is a first-rate set of performances, credible but with subtle hints of caricature that well suit the supercharged reality of the world of the play. It has great success in balancing the absurdity and comic word play with Martin’s tragic inability to reconcile genuine love with absolute social orthodoxy, and as such leaves us wary of taking the validity of such a convention for granted. Dir:  Guy Levin
    OFS: 7.30 Tues-Sat, 2.30 Sat
    Week 4