When Edward Albee (of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf fame) was asked what his plays were “about”, he would often reply: “two hours”. Penned in the year 2000, his play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? – in a new co-production by Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia directed by Mitchell Butel – is technically about a man who falls in love with a goat named Sylvia, much to his upper-middle-class-perfect wife and son’s dismay. But it’s “about” a lot more than that.
Everything is off-kilter as soon as the curtain rises on Jeremy Allen’s set – a diagonal cross-section of a tasteful American home filled with expensive mid-century furniture and curated, fragile art objects. On the left sits a green velvet couch and on the right, there’s a brown rattan dining set. There are pristine (and probably disused) books lining floating wooden shelves on grey concrete walls. The focal point at the centre of the stage is not the back wall, but an entryway that leads to the front door; all lines pointing to escape.
A belly-hurting, brain-tickling reminder of the ridiculousness of the rules we make for ourselves
Stevie (Claudia Karvan) and Martin Gray (Nathan Page) are the perfect couple, or so they keep telling each other. Their only problem in their perfect life (so far) is that their son Billy is gay, which is just a phase, or so they keep telling each other. Everything’s a witty joke to these two exemplary left-leaning Americans, including Martin’s initial confession to his wife that he’s having an affair with a goat. They are so perfect, it’s scary.
Butel revels in the play’s heightened wordplay and absurdity of character, sending Karvan’s cracked-porcelain wife and Page’s disoriented husband into caricature territory (emphasised by Ailsa Paterson’s subtly cartoonish costumes). This broad style of comedy has echoes of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, once described as “[Shakespearean tragedy] Titus Andronicus played for laughs”. And this production is better for its ridiculousness. We spend so much time laughing about “goat-fucking” that Butel brings us to an affecting, gasping halt when Sylvia makes her grand entrance in the final moments of the play.
Albee subtitled The Goat: “Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy”, which might not make much sense with all this laughing going on. It follows a tragic structure, with the celebrated architect Martin, currently designing an enormously expensive “city”, falling from his great heights. But it also challenges what a tragedy can be: what heights are these characters really falling from? And do they even fall at all? Can you really be laughing while people are suffering?
Of course you can, and this production shows why you should. The Greeks (some of the original theatre geeks) set their tragedies and comedies apart, performing trios of tragedies intercut with “satyr plays” or satirical skits with actors dressed as goat-like people (etymology nerds, get Googling). Albee puts his goat right at the centre of the play, forcing us to engage with terribly behaved people by making us laugh at and with them. It allows for a broader commentary than we’d be able to handle in a “serious” play by inviting us to laugh about the caricatures of these “clever” people. We listen so closely for punchlines and witty repartee that we almost forget we’re watching a family fall apart, and definitely forget that we’re learning something about ourselves along the way.
At one point, I guffawed so loudly that someone told me to be quiet – and if that’s not indicative of the kind of audience Albee wanted to shock, I don’t know what is. The detailed, subtle arguments for and against what makes a tragedy in Albee’s writing are matched by a zealous, studied approach from Butel and Allen – and what a delight it is to sink your teeth into.
This approach is reflected in the supporting cast. Mark Saturno as Ross, a one-man Greek chorus and Martin’s best friend, is cheek-achingly funny in his opening scenes with Page, setting the tone for the production. Yazeed Daher makes his STC debut as an endearingly effeminate, angsty Billy who cares more about what he’s going to tell the other kids at school than what his father has actually done. But there’s also something dark behind their eyes, an artificiality that comes out in all of the characters; when they’re constantly, obviously performing their roles, their confusion at suddenly being outside of them is all the more devastating.
Shockingly funny absurdity makes this production of Albee’s darkest tragi-comedy of manners an enthralling watch. It’s brave and it’s controversial in the way that it refuses to be “serious”. It revels in the duplicity of language, the responsibilities of performing the roles of the capitalist nuclear family, and how far we’ll take them when we’re forced to confront their limitations. The point is not believability, or even to discuss the pros and cons of bestiality. What’s it about, then? A belly-hurting, brain-tickling reminder of the ridiculousness of the rules we make for ourselves. And an hour and a half.