A blissful, ideal family is upended by an inconceivable revelation in Edward Albee’s taboo-prodding 2002 play The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?, which is being revived by Claudia Karvan.
The Dunstan Playhouse stage looked like it was taken right out of Architectural Magazine with its polished concrete floor, stylish wooden beams, trendy midcentury furniture, and shelves of neatly arranged books, potted plants, and ceramics. Everything is extremely nice and well-curated; it has the affluent aesthetics, with nothing out of place.
Martin and Stevie Gray, the room’s proprietors, seem ideal as well. The Grays are TV stars attractive, content, and successful, with an opening rally of running jokes and easy affection establishing the private language of a loving, live-in relationship.
They are portrayed by Claudia Karvan (Secret Life of Us, Bump, Love My Way) and Nathan Page (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, The 39 Steps). Yet everything is about to collapse. Martin, a celebrated architect approaching his 50th birthday and several significant professional milestones, comes out as disorganized, distant, and forgetful.
Martin appears to be on the verge of a midlife crisis as his longtime friend Ross (Mark Saturno), a slickly chauvinistic liberal TV anchor, arrives to interview him. It’s a middle-aged cliché that’s so foreseeable that Stevie and Martin make fun of the whole notion of Martin getting a mistress.
But when Ross prods him to divulge the cause of his diversion, something shocking and dangerous comes out: Martin has been having an adulterous affair for six months with a goat in the farmyard he calls Sylvia. He loves her. Therefore, it’s more than just s*ex for him.
This major taboo in Albee’s Tony-winning tragicomedy from 2002 explores how marriage and a family may persevere in the face of a previously inconceivable transgression that “shatters the glass” of their lives. It was designed to explore the boundaries of tolerance and test the morality of US audiences around the turn of the millennium.
The Goat was first performed on this stage in 2005 by the State Theatre Company of South Australia (pardon the pun). This co-production with Sydney Theatre Company, directed by the company’s artistic director, Mitchell Butel, appears prepared to capitalize on current insecurities.
Many people find that the possibility of being “canceled” by censorious woke mobs, whether real or imagined, is the kind of existential, disproportionate threat that can keep them awake at night. Breaches of an ever-changing set of rules are amplified by the public shame and long memory of the internet.
Whether you agree with these cultural conflicts or not, the worry you feel for your family or yourself is understandable and extremely human. It’s not really about the goat, it’s about what the revelation portends, and Martin, Stevie, and their teenage son Billy are met with a scale model of that dreadful, explosive situation in Sylvia.
Hence, I wonder why we aren’t taking this man’s dilemma seriously after listening to Martin valiantly try to explain his condition for about an hour while a furious and dumbfounded Stevie and Billy fume and retch. Instead, most of this performance, which takes place on a Monday in the middle of the season, is set to farce.
Although the idea is intentionally ludicrous and the epithet “goat-fucker” is frequently used with glee, as Martin relates his difficulty and inability to reconcile his two facts, two lives, and two loves, shouldn’t we start to feel sorry for the guy?
Why would anything as repulsive and strange as shagging a goat be worth jeopardizing such a strong marriage, much alone such a wonderful living room, should move us to understand, on some level? The word “goat” still causes audience members to laugh during scenes of intense stress when there should be completely quiet.
The familiarity, relatability, and mastery of the TV close-up in capturing the emotional spectrum of Karvan’s instantly recognizable face are the sources of her impact. The complexity evident in a program like Bump, where her on-screen family navigates more than its fair share of taboos, is often lost in the large set and plate-smashing delivery, though, in her much-anticipated return to the stage.
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A late-game twist aims to surprise the audience; after chuckling along with the ridiculousness of Martin’s conundrum, we are met with two more visceral and human taboos. It’s a bait-and-switch that’s meant to stun but comes off as hammy in execution.
Albee’s script contains one line that particularly hits home as Martin rails against the absurdity of the situation: We fear not so much the crimes themselves as the condemnation of others should word come out. Are we ultimately constrained by what we believe we can get away with in terms of morality?
That once-immaculate set is in ruins at the play’s conclusion, exactly like the family. At least Martin seems to believe that the chaos and destruction are worthwhile because of his love for Sylvia. If only we could all be so convinced.