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January 22, 2023
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March 2, 2023

Review: Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? at Dunstan Playhouse

What an explosive way to open the season State Theatre Company South Australia!

Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? is probably one of the strangest theatre experiences I’ve come upon.

But would we expect anything less from the playwright who brought us The Zoo Story and  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If you are wanting fascinating, intriguing and boundary pushing, then Albee’s your man.

Albee adds the subtitle: Notes towards a definition of tragedy. The word tragedy is derived from the Ancient Greek word tragoedia which literally means goat song.

The fundamentals of Greek tragedy are dotted throughout The Goat – violating the laws of human order, protagonists, usually powerful men or women, suffer not from moral flaw, but from error of judgement, the use of the Chorus who comment on the action of the story and give voice to the experiences before them.

The Goat starts off conventionally and realistically, set in the stylish, geometric living room designed by Jeremy Allen.

Heading up the family is Martin, played with astonishing ease by Nathan Page, an American architect at the peak of his fame. At 50, he has won his profession’s prize accolade and has been chosen to design a model city to be built in the Kansas wheat fields. He also enjoys a long and loving relationship with his wife, Stevie [an impeccable Claudia Karvan] and their gay son, Billy, portrayed by newcomer Yazeed Daher.

It is clear from the outset, however, that Martin is as haunted as any Sophoclean protagonist. He worries about memory loss and seems critically detached during a TV interview with his oldest friend, Ross [another stellar performance by Mark Saturno]. Eventually he confesses the source of his anxiety: he has fallen in love, spiritually and physically, with a goat.

Our initial response is one of shock: even, in some cases, disbelieving laughter. But, far from writing a lurid play about bestiality, Albee is posing serious questions about the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality.

We may be inclined to look away, but there is a key moment when Ross, revolted by a story of sexual excitation, asks: “Is there anything you people don’t get off on?” To which Martin replies, with unwavering calm: “Is there anything anyone doesn’t get off on, whether we admit it or not?”

The play, with its isolated, disjointed dialogue and speech patterns register strongly as an Albee work. As Albee covers all the bases – Stevie finding out in a letter written by Ross, Billy’s reaction, and the eventual retribution – a play of two outrageously contradictory attitudes emerges.

The first is one of almost unyielding comedy. No one involved shies away from the laughs the material brings out. For the audience, the laughter might be genuine or uncomfortable (it’s hard to tell which, sometimes), but it’s remarkably inescapable, affecting everything and everyone until the play’s final moments, at which, for some strange reason, laughter is no longer enough.

Under this is the perhaps expected dark, tragic undercurrent. Martin’s fall from glory, because of his love for an animal, is significant enough, but it is Karvan who brings it out best, making it clear that the play is every bit as much as Stevie’s tragedy as it is Martin’s.

She covers the emotional gamut from disgust and horror to plate-smashing anger, as she listens to Martin’s confession and at one point utters a prolonged howl of despair. When Karvan cries “You have brought me down”, you realise that, so close is her bond with her husband, she too has been destroyed.

Page perfectly captures Martin’s initial unease, his absent-minded comments, looking through rather than at people. The high point comes, though, when he admits to the terrifying solitude that comes from being a sexual outcast in a society where love has strict parameters.

Saturno as the representative of the orthodox morality and Daher as the poor bewildered son are arresting and round out the small, intense cast of four.

Director Mitchell Butell has done another incredible job, bringing a sense of reality to subject matter that frequently seems almost impossibly unbelievable. Nigel Leving’s lighting is an important contribution, but there’s something about Allen’s set design that steals the show. The house, truly appears that it, like the family it contains, is about to come apart at the seams; the walls slowly closing in on the characters as doomed as any in classical tragedy.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, yes, you must see The Goat.


Lia Loves.


Lia Loves
Lia Loves
Theatre. Dance. Culture. Events. Follow her adventures as Adelaide's premier theatre buff, arts contributor, educator and ambassador!

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