Edward Albee’s pedigree as the chronicler of domestic dysfunction is well earned and the Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of The Goat or, Who is Sylvia revels in the nasty details. Dark comedies don’t get much darker than this, and when we say “the goat”, we don’t mean “the greatest of all time”.
Martin and Stevie appear to be the perfect white liberal couple. High enough on their pedestal to look down on others while holding onto their ideals. Their banter is replete with Coward-esque wordplay and perfect grammar, surrounded by their tasteful possessions and beautiful clothes. They even have a nice gay son. But Martin’s mid-life crisis has kicked off, translating into an extramarital, sexual affair with…a goat.
To go deeper into the plot would be to risk spoilers for a play that is powered by its ability to shock you, so I’ll stop there. Albee is less interested in the dynamics of the family, than he is in pushing things to their absurd limit to test the audience, asking us to question where our own personal boundaries of morality lie.
While everyone on stage is terrific, the star turn is from Claudia Karvan as Stevie. She starts the play as a picture of almost smugly perfect, wealthy white woman privilege, before her world is torn apart. Her psyche shatters in front of us into a million pieces. It’s painfully funny and tragic at the same time. We may be used to seeing Karvan’s comedic chops in gentler fare like her TV series Bump, but here she hits hysterical overdrive.
In many ways, The Goat… is an ultra-conservative’s fever-dream of what liberal households are like. Morally hypocritical and debauched in ways you can’t imagine, I’m sure they’d love to watch the deconstruction of this family. In lesser hands, some of the content could be construed as homophobic (even naming the gay son Billy is particularly cutting considering the play’s goat-centred bestiality plot) but Albee’s command of character, and this terrific cast, keep the context clear. Things are only heightened by the fact that this very week in Sydney, drag comedian Reuben Kaye caused a stir on Australian TV by telling this old joke, sparking a small protest in the middle of Sydney WorldPride. The moral absurdity isn’t limited to the characters upon the Sydney Theatre Company stage right now.
At first I was thrown by the heightened dialogue delivery, but as the show progresses it’s clear this is designed to get you to the crazy third act where things really go off the rails. With the energy levels turned up to high farce for so much of the running time there isn’t always anywhere for the scenes to go. The script is occasionally repetitive, resulting in some beats that felt overdone, but I guess there’s only so many ways you can scream “goat-fucker”!
The Goat or, Who is Sylvia is likely to divide audiences and spark debate. While Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf remains Albee’s masterpiece, The Goat… is in a solid second place, and this production milks it for all its worth.
By Chad Armstrong
Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? plays at Sydney Theatre Company from 2 Mar – 1 Apr, 2023. Click here for tickets and more information.