THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA?
THE GOAT, or WHO IS SYLVIA? State Theatre Company of SA and Sydney Theatre Company at Rosalind Packer Theatre, 4 Mar-1 April 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton
Artistic Director of STCSA and director of this production, Mitchell Butel, was – he says in his program notes – much taken by the famous version of The Goat by STCSA and Belvoir in 2006. With “gripping” direction by Marion Potts, “led by” William Zappa and “the late, great Victoria Longley”.
This is a bit unfortunate because even though – as John Lydgate wrote, circa 1440 in a Debate between a horse, a goose, and a sheep – “comparisons are odious”, Butel has made it almost impossible not to.
So: Potts (a loss to the stage even while executiving at Performing Lines, btw) directed The Goat with tight reins on the comedy and its occasional tendency to eye-rolling farce. It meant that much could be made of the deep emotions and despair just beneath the surface of architect Martin (a compassionate, intuitive Zappa). And even more energy was detonated by the always electric yet subtly-controlled Longley (Martin’s wife Stevie).
All in all, I recall the laughs were really funny and that meant the bewildering behaviours and human tragedy were arresting. Rather than easy laughter, we were enticed to look at ourselves and our foibles and preconceptions.
Fast forward to 2023 and The Goat’s author, Edward Albee, has been gone seven years after a long, productive, and successful life. He won many awards, and wrote 28 plays of which Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the most celebrated but The Lady From Dubuque, A Delicate Balance and Three Tall Women shouldn’t be overlooked. The Goat harks back to his early Theatre of the Absurd influences, yet is also indicative of his lifelong preoccupation with the failings of “the American Dream”.
On the Ros Packer stage, on a nicely-detailed home-of-the-intelligentsia set by Jeremy Allen with appropriate lighting by Nigel Levings, Martin (Nathan Page) is turning 50, has just been awarded the Pritzker Prize for architecture, and been commissioned to design a multi-billion dollar city in the Mid-West. He should be on top of the world. Stevie (Claudia Karvan) certainly is. She’s thrilled for him and the action opens with her arranging flowers that will say good things about their home and life when his friend Ross (Mark Saturno) arrives to film an episode of his arts show.
Martin is not happy, however, and when Stevie pops off to the shops Ross drags the reason out of him. Martin has fallen in love with a nanny goat he found at a farm stand in the country when he stopped to buy produce. The play then goes on a dramatic, social, and comedic rollercoaster for three acts and 100 minutes.
For The Goat to achieve its potential, Martin has to be deeply grounded in his confusion, sadness, infatuation with Sylvia (for indeed it is she), and a tangible belief in what he is experiencing. Alas, none of this is apparent in Page’s one-note, shouty performance. The TV star (most notably, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) appears ill at ease on stage and his bellowing delivery is more bull than goat.
Playing opposite this racket, Karvan understandably gives in to a high-pitched almost-screech on occasion and a lot of nervy prancing. When she discovers the cause of Martin’s low mood she has every reason to go right off the deep end. It gives rise to wonderful technical comedy; she is beautifully disciplined and timed in her stagecraft. Best moment of the night: she rips a painting off the wall and cracks it over a sculpture. “That was my mother’s!” Martin yells. “It still is.” She retorts. This scene is all the more effective for following opening banter which is as funny as a hod-full of house bricks.
Teenage son Billy (effective newcomer Yazeed Daher) is newly out as gay and when he stumbles into the escalating conflict an interaction with his father is more shocking than any professed love for a goat. Yet in 2023 it’s not possible to chortle or be appalled (there were walk-outs) without wondering why no one considers Sylvia and her lack of agency. Was Albee critiquing the fate of domestic animals and the poor in modern America? It’s the only thing that makes sense of the heedless attitude of the bourgeoisie towards the totally f**ked goat. And, of course, Albee’s classic cop-out of an ending. Disappointing.