Throughout his career, acclaimed playwright, Edward Albee, did not shy away from creating controversial work that people (both audiences and critics) either loved or loathed —playing it safe was not his style, and that’s why I personally adore his work. Best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, the Wolf-man also introduced the world to his boundary-shifting The Goat, his last award-winning play before his passing in 2016. It’s this Tony Award-winning 2002 Best Play that's currently in the spotlight at the Baxter Theatre until 18 May 2019.
Metaphors and symbolism abound in this genius of a play. It draws audiences into a fascinating comedy-meets-tragedy scenario of a once affluent man brought to his knees by an inexplicable life choice. With this tri-titled play —The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (Notes towards a definition of tragedy)— the genius of Albee is put on display: The goat being the scapegoat in a goat-song (Greek reference to tragedy) and Sylvia being a nod to Shakespeare’s ‘Who is Silvia?’ from The Two Gentleman of Verona, while the Notes indicate that this is not tragedy as traditionally understood, but an absurdist look at the drama that informs tragedy.
In the opening scene you meet Martin and Stevie as they banter away in their grammatically correct way (an important language reference to Martin’s ability to be a stickler for some rules), doing what Stevie calls their ‘greatly exaggerated Noël Coward’ bit when Martin confesses he’s in love with Sylvia, a goat. Stevie laughs this off and exits, leaving Martin to remark: ‘You try to tell them; you try to be honest. What do they do? They laugh at you.’
This comment sets the tone for the play; when the laughter stops for the characters, that’s when it starts for the audience (albeit as a shocked reaction to a social taboo). And so begins an exploration of Martin’s relationships —with his wife, son, and best friend— all which unravels with great dramatic effect.
In the latest staging of The Goat at the Baxter Theatre, this is all revealed in a manner that can be described as emotionally apocalyptic in the best kind of way. The emotional roller-coaster that the characters are on introduces the audiences to themes of desire, betrayal, rejection, defenselessness, disempowerment, and revenge.
Director Mdu Kweyama has placed the focus squarely on Albee’s riveting text. Playing to the strengths of his cast, his direction heightens the comedy within the tragedy with a flair of farcicality in a delightfully shocking fashion.
Following in the footsteps of actors of the calibre of Bill Pullman (the original Martin) and Sally Field (who played Martin’s wife Stevie opposite Bill Irwin), Lionel Newton and Jennifer Steyn more than hold their own in their respective portrayals of ostracised Martin and betrayed Stevie. Emotionally this duo throw everything including the barnyard trough at the audience and each other.
Newton gives great expression to Albee’s idea of turning the concept of Greek-tragedy on its head, as here the drama and misfortunes revealed are not associated with a traditional hero, but an outcast who in our societal terms is labelled a criminal, yet is also just a man. Newton fully embraces Martin’s existential crisis in his performance. His turmoil (as it builds from cautious playfulness to self-destruction) draws the audiences into Martin’s liminal space along with him. Newton’s captivating performances makes you sympathise with what socially should be the unsympathisable as he reveals the turmoil of Martin’s transient self-hood, brought about by a feeling of ‘love or something’.
Steyn as Stevie is the theatrical equivalent of a backdraft: Through a range of emotions you can see how she shrinks away along with Stevie as the reality of her husbands ‘affair’ hits her, sucking the life 'oxygen' out of her, while you can feel the emotion pulsing just underneath the surface until Stevie explodes in great form. The reintroduction of ‘oxygen’ as Stevie through Steyn regains her voice is impressive. Her performance reveals Stevie to be an intelligent and witty woman caught up in an unthinkable situation, questioning her place in her marriage to a similar degree that Martin questions his place in the world.
Sihle Mnqwazana as Martin and Stevie’s son, Billy, initially looked to shy away from an exploration of his character as a gay boy going through a rough period of sexual self-discovery. As the play progresses he however finds his feet and gives a solid performance showing Billy to be a child going through his own storm of self-discovery at the same time that his father seems to be losing his sense of self altogether. Mnqwazana unquestionably finds his voice when he confronts his father with his youthful and confused inability to comprehend the sense of family he is now faced with after the introduction of Sylvia and the destruction of their conventional family life. This monologue is most compelling and a great example of the mixture of charm and vulnerability Mnqwazana brings to his character.
Sadly, Paul Savage as Martin’s best friend Ross —the one who brings the goatly-affair to light and instigates the carnage that follows— left me slightly underwhelmed with his performance. I found he over-acted his character to such a degree that it amounted to a cartoonish portrayal that did not gel with the style of characterisation found in Newton, Steyn, and Mnqazana’s respective portrayals. That style difference made it difficult for me to buy into the fact that Ross and Martin are in fact best friends and that the goat-affair-reveal comes from a place of concern for the family as a whole —this being a purely personal-preference informed account and critique.
Special mention must be made of the exquisitely detailed set design by Patrick Curtis. It seems almost criminal that such beauty gets trashed night-after-night, but in allowing for this the set brings another layer of symbolism that feeds into the telling of the tale. Steyn uses the set well to give further expression to the narrative with the rhythmic breaking of decorative objects and the throwing of furniture in unison with Newton’s emotive breakdown of Martin’s telling of his first encounter with Sylvia.
The current staging of The Goat will glare audiences out of their comfort zone, as it reflects on the absurdity of our self-imposed constraints of rituals and social taboos. In great Albee-fashion, it takes the traditional sense of misfortune and uses it to scrutinise our socially entrenched perceptions of right and wrong as an attack on social prejudices and preconceptions. Martin may be guilty of bestiality in the strict sense, but The Goat is not about that: The text but uses that to move the audience beyond that offense towards something that is rustic and haunting, as a postmodern criticism of the problematic nature of identity. Although this context is heavy in theory, under the nuanced direction of Kweyama, Newton and Steyn turn The Goat into a fascinating staging as they play into the balanced found between the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy.
Go to The Goat willing to be provoked by a confrontation between the desire to belong and the desire to embrace a self-realised identity. Albee's play does not offer any answers to this conundrum —his text never comes across as that presumptuous. Albee rather uses the arc of the narrative to lead the audience to a question informed by that confrontation. In the Kweyama directed staging, the question is fully highlighted by the cast in an emotionally charged conclusion, which leaves both the cast and the audience gobsmacked and overwhelmed. Albee-styled provocation is however not intentional provocation for the sake of such, but as he himself qualified it's rather provocation driven by the ‘desire to engage, to upset, to trouble’ to such a degree that the moment of catharsis stays with the audience long after the curtain call.
For those not yet acquainted with the details of the tale of Edward Albee’s The Goat, still needing to go figure out who is Sylvia, I don’t want to give too much of the dramatic conclusion away, but, let’s leave it at this: There will be blood.
You have until 18 May 2019 to go see how far Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? can challenge you to question social rituals and structures in a very entertaining but daring and shocking manner at the Baxter Theatre. Tickets are available online through Webtickets. The production carries an age restriction of 16 and is not for the fainthearted. Before booking read the cautionary note issued by the Baxter Theatre.