February 17, 2023

Guffaws and vengeance in a tale of family woe

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?
by Edward Albee.
State Theatre Company South Australia
and Sydney Theatre Company.
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
February 14. Bookings:
Tickets: $49-95. Until February 25.
Duration : 100 minutes. No interval.

Sydney Theatre Company season
at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney,
March 2 -25. Tickets : $65- $125.

Murray Bramwell

It’s in the title of the play so it doesn’t need a spoiler alert. We know who Sylvia is. She is a goat. But what Sylvia means is something else again. In his play for the new millennium back in 2000, Edward Albee fashioned a dramatic hybrid which had, and continues to have, astonishing theatrical effect. The Goat or, Who is Sylvia ? has elements from both comedy of manners and the “goat songs” of Greek drama. You might call it Screwball Tragedy.

The program notes for this galvanising State Theatre company production quote directly from the playwright. “Every civilisation sets quite arbitrary limits to its tolerances. The play is about a family that is rocked by a deeply unimaginable event and how they solve that problem.”

About to turn fifty, Martin is an award-winning architect about to build a multi-billion dollar megacity. His wife Stevie is stylish, sharp and devoted and they have a teenage son, Billy. It is during a rehearsal for an interview with his old friend Ross that things go awry. Encouraged to confide about what is troubling him, Martin reveals he is in love with Sylvia, and more. Like a busybody character in an Ibsen play, Ross feels bound to write to Stevie conveying the “tidings” of his friend Martin’s life-lie. The rest of the play is about what happens when the unspeakable is spoken.

When Albee said that his play refers to bestiality but also to flower arranging, he is being mischievous but he is also right. It is really about otherness, transgression and betrayal, guilt and recrimination . Sylvia is a goat but is also a scapegoat. She is the pretext not the cause for the dynamics of the breakdown of a chain of relationships which Albee examines in dazzling and incongruously diverting ways.

Warmly and elegantly lit by Nigel Levings, Jeremy Allen’s lavish apartment décor (with heavy timber beams and panels and pastel mid-century divans, deco wall designs and an array of flower vases) describes the casual affluence of Martin’s milieu.

Director Mitchell Butel has brought the disparate elements of Albee’s work together with brisk efficiency. The opening scene unfolds with gliding ease as Martin and Stevie (Nathan Page and Claudia Karvan) deliver Albee’s suave, amusing dialogue. It is as astringently witty as it is portentous.

Amidst the badinage are hints of tragic implications. Martin’s coat smells strange, he has a card with an unknown woman’s name on it. They hypothesize about infidelity then break into a Noel Coward-esque exchange of truth-telling. “You are too much” says Stevie, when he names and describes his betrayal. “You tell them and they laugh !” Martin replies in the direction of the audience.

The performances are all excellent. Nathan Page captures Martin’s distractedness and his innocent confusion at his infatuated state, while Claudia Karvan, returning to the stage after a brilliant screen career, is disarmingly good-natured and fond initially, heart-breakingly eloquent in betrayal and builds towards Medean vengeance in the extraordinary final scene. Their lengthy exchanges of accusation and defence are sprinkled with droll asides – Martin will correct grammar with ‘whom’, or wonder on a word; Stevie in an intensely vehement moment will pause and observe ”women in deep woe often mix their metaphors.”

Equally astute is Mark Saturno as the whistleblower, Ross. He serves Albee’s dual purpose, venting reasonable outrage at Martin’s declarations but also having hypocritical concern as much for appearance as moral rectitude. Saturno’s gusto and guffaws splendidly feed the comedy and raucousness of Albee’s satire.

As Billy, making his stage debut, Yazeed Daher, memorably captures the consternation and fury of the gay teenage son watching his parents disintegrate in front of his eyes. He delivers his lines sardonically where required and plays a crucial role in the complex final scene with Page and Saturno.

State Theatre Company has opened its season with a terrific production and Edward Albee’s deliberately unsettling and unresolved text creates valuable disturbance in a hundred minutes of captivating theatre.

Published online in The Australian as “Guffaws and vengeance in a tale of family woe” February 17, 2023.

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