The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? starring Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo – review round-up
It’s Edward Albee season in the West End at the moment. While Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? drags audiences into marital hell six nights a week at the Harold Pinter Theatre, The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? bates them with a bizarre story of bestiality just around the corner at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Albee – who died last September – wrote The Goat during his later years, winning his second Tony Award when it opened on Broadway in 2002. The play made its UK premiere at the Almeida in 2004 – in a production starring Jonathan Pryce and a young Eddie Redmayne – but after a brief West End transfer, it hasn’t been seen in London since.
Ian Rickson’s fresh revival, which remains at the Haymarket until late June, stars Damian Lewis as animal-lover Martin and Sophie Okonedo as his wife Stevie.
Is Rickson’s revival as gentle as a lamb, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Is this another posthumous prize pig for Albee, or do all his chickens come home to roost? Did the critics take the bull by the horns and separate the sheep from the goats, or do they back the wrong horse? Is that too many farmyard metaphors?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? – A grumpy old goat
“A profound and multifarious masterpiece” – that was the verdict of The Stage on The Goat’s first West End outing.
Most critics are fascinated by it still. “The play makes me think of a late painting by Picasso or cut out by Matisse,” writes Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★★★★). “It’s a graceful tour de force, still full of challenge and dare and invention but executed with the precision of a master.“
Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★) agrees. “The genius of Albee’s play,” she writes, “is the way in which it takes what could have been a clinical examination of sexual and social taboos, weighed down with classical allusions crossed with the sheep scene in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), and makes it emotionally and dramatically compelling.”
“Our initial response is one of shock: even, in some cases, incredulous laughter,” chimes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★). “But, far from writing a sensationalist play about bestiality, Albee is posing serious questions about the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality.”
Aside from a few niggles – the play “carries a huge amount of pretentious baggage,” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★), “often feels glib or pedantic” to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★), and strikes Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★) as “self-indulgent, faux-daring rubbish” – most agree that The Goat has aged pretty well.
Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) finds it a “precarious balancing act between devastating tragedy and audience tickling absurdity”, Clare Webb (Radio Times, ★★★★) thinks it “absurd, funny and thought-provoking”, and, for Matt Trueman (Variety), “it’s silly and shocking and, at its best, achingly sad”.
The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? – Are you kidding me?
Lewis, a household name thanks to his screen work on Homeland, Billions and Wolf Hall, was last seen on stage in American Buffalo in 2015, alongside John Goodman and Tom Sturridge.
Sophie Okonedo has also balanced stage and screen work; she was Oscar-nominated for her performance in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, and was highly praised for her last stage appearance, alongside Ben Whishaw in Ivo van Hove’s Broadway production of The Crucible.
Their performances here divide opinion. For Treneman, Lewis is “five-star perfect”, for Hitchings he provides “a performance of unsettling intensity”, and for Crompton, his turn as Martin is “full of clever detail”.
Others, though find Lewis’ performance a shade too mannered, a touch too actorly. “As the play wears on, the pitch and fussiness of Lewis’s performance increasingly grate,” writes Lukowski. “He looks a bit too much like an actor having fun.”
“He’s gone for a very full American accent and such a hefty side-order of mannerisms that it almost capsizes the performance,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), while for Barry O’Reilly (West End Wilma, ★★★★), Lewis’ “incredibly robotic” performance is “irritating to both watch and listen to”.
Connor Campbell (The Upcoming, ★★★) agrees, observing that Lewis “seems to have taken his cues from the Al Pacino School of Big Acting”, and so does Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★), who writes that, even in his better moments, Lewis has “a tendency to approach the character from the outside in”.
Okonedo, similarly, is showered with praise by some, and criticised heavily by others. For Tripney, “her performance is rich, her emotional responses to the situation convincing; the sense of shock, anger, betrayal and pain palpable,” but for Trueman, she “just shouts.”
“She covers the emotional gamut from disgust and horror to plate-smashing anger,” writes Billington, and is “the only one who nails the play’s duality and innumerate layers,” according to Lukowski. To Alice Saville (Exeunt) she is “painfully real and brilliantly furious, reducing their living room furniture to earth in a desperate, failed bid to bring him back down to earth”. Letts, however, complains that she “seems half-disengaged”.
“The cast is phenomenal. Period,” writes Jordan Priestley (Gay Times, ★★★★★); “The blocking’s appalling — all head-to-heads, downstage center — and the acting’s no better,” says Trueman. Divisive, then, to say the least.
The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? – Albee vs Albee
Since leaving the Royal Court in 2006, Rickson has chalked up a number of critically-acclaimed productions, Jerusalem, Old Times and The Red Lion among them. He’s a director with a reputation for restraint and acuity: does he build on it here? Is The Goat a match for Virginia Woolf?
This production’s problem, for Lukowski, is that Rickson has ridden over the play’s deeper themes in pursuit of laughs: “This revival feels overpowered,” he writes, “milking the play’s humour to the point that its delicacy is lost”.
Trueman vehemently concurs. This revival “plays the joke ahead of the emotional truth,” he writes, railing that Albee’s play “deserves far better than Ian Rickson’s stagey production”.
There’s another end to this spectrum, though. For Billington, Rickson’s revival is “superb”, and “reminds us that this is not simply a play about a lost individual but about two people staring into the abyss.”
Tripney agrees, hesitantly. “Rickson’s production is a little stiff to begin with,” she writes. “But once Martin’s secret is out of its pen, it never lets up.” It is, she claims, “magnificently murky.”
Is it a match for its much-vaunted neighbour at the Harold Pinter, though? Heather Neill (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) reckons it’s a “worthy companion piece,” but she’s in a slim minority there. It’s “like parking a dusty jalopy next to gleaming Cadillac,” reckons Cavendish and most, in perhaps less certain tones, agree.
It is, according to Swain, “a decent rendition of a play that still asks searching questions about social morality, and the form and power of love and sexuality” but one “overshadowed by that big Albee beast around the corner.”
“Still, what a treat that London is playing host to two of Albee’s great plays at the same time,” concludes Lukowski, and Crompton agrees: proof, she reckons, that Albee “could still nail the vagaries of the human soul right to the end.”
The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? – Is it any good?
No one can seem to agree. Most reckon Albee’s play has stood the test of time and is well on its way to becoming a classic, but others – Treneman and Letts among them – find it conceited, tiresome and dated.
Some rave about the two central performances from Lewis and Okonedo, but others find Lewis’ ceaseless mannerisms obstructive, and more still find Okonedo’s wrangling emotions one-dimensional.
Likewise with Rickson’s production: a fascinating evening for Billington, Tripney, and Crompton, but for others – particularly Cavendish and Trueman – it’s an ill-judged, awkward revival.
This Goat, it seems, is an opinion-splitter.