The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? review at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – ‘a murky masterwork’

Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo in The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Edward Albee’s taboo-torpedoing play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, combines the sweep of a tragedy with a thought experiment. It’s a test of the limits of love and the elasticity of attraction.

Martin, an until-now happily married, award-winning architect, is about to turn 50. He fears the erosion of middle age, but that’s not the reason he’s edgy and forgetful. On a recent trip out of the city, in search of an American idyll, he has fallen in love. Deeply and completely in love – with a goat.

Understandably, this revelation threatens to tear apart his marriage. His wife, Stevie, his teenage son, his best friend, they’re all appalled, but in Martin’s eyes his love is pure and true. He hasn’t just been screwing livestock (though the play leaves you in no doubt that this is a sexual relationship), he has fallen in love, he is smitten.

Ian Rickson’s production is a little stiff to begin with. But once Martin’s secret is out of its pen, it never lets up.

Once you accustom yourself to his nasal and slightly strained accent, what’s most impressive about Damian Lewis’ performance as Martin is the reasonableness with which he discusses the situation – the calmness of his manner, his determination that people see the world as he does. The more things fall apart, the more compelling he becomes; there’s an exquisitely awful moment when he’s reminiscing about Sylvia and mimes their nuzzling.

Sophie Okonedo, as Stevie, arguably has the harder task. But her performance is rich, her emotional responses to the situation convincing; the sense of shock, anger, betrayal and pain palpable. It’s as if she constantly has to remind herself that this is really happening, that her husband is diddling a barnyard animal, and it hurts afresh each time. So, she sets about breaking every fragile thing in their opulent apartment.

Somewhat perversely, once Lewis and Okonedo start to rip into each other, the sense of connection between them grows. They both nail the play’s linguistic precision and idiosyncrasies (all the characters are semanticists).

Alongside them, Archie Madekwe makes an impressive stage debut as their adolescent son. His confusion and grief are well-conveyed, and he handles what is probably the most emotionally complex scene with maturity.

The genius of Albee’s play is the way in which it takes what could have been a clinical examination of sexual and social taboos, weighed down with classical allusions and 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. Though the play premiered on Broadway in 2002, it still feels bold, both in terms of the things that it says and the places it goes.

Rae Smith’s handsome set, a brick-walled and spectacularly well-appointed apartment, gradually expands and contracts to PJ Harvey’s atmospheric original music. It is a pleasing, if too-neat, visual reminder that whoever we love, it can, and will, tear us apart.

Assured and compelling revival of Albee’s magnificently murky late masterwork