Theatre review: The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?

poster for the goat or who is sylvia a man and woman standing in front of a beautiful green landscape. the top of a goat's head appears in front of the couple, in the foreground of the image
Claudia Karvan and Nathan Page in The Goat. Credit: State Theatre Company

Who: State Theatre Company / Sydney Theatre Company

Where: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

When: Until 25 February 2023 (then at Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney 2-25 March 2023)

How much: $49-90; see tickets here

How far could a loved one push the bounds of society before we would no longer recognise or accept them? And what is it that defines those bounds and keeps them in place, anyway?

These are some of the questions explored in Edward Albee’s 2000 play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, currently showing at Adelaide’s Dunstan Playhouse. The joint production from the State Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company is directed by Mitchell Butel and stars Claudia Karvan (Love My Way), Nathan Page (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), Mark Saturno (First Day), and Yazeed Daher (The Heights).

– brief spoilers for the plot of The Goat follow below –

cast of the goat or who is sylvia four actors standing or sitting on chairs together and smiling at the camera
(L-R) Yazeed Daher, Mark Saturno, Claudia Karvan, and Nathan Page. Credit: State Theatre Company

Martin (Page) and Stevie (Karvan) have been happily married for over 20 years, with a 17-year-old son, Billy (Daher). Martin is turning 50, has recently won a prestigious architectural prize, and is about to be interviewed by family friend Ross (Saturno) for a TV program. However, their blissful lives are soon shattered by the revelation that Martin has been carrying on an affair with a female goat, whom he calls Sylvia. And yes, we’re talking about a literal goat.

What follows is more absurdist tragicomedy than a realistic engagement with grief and betrayal. We are only told, not shown, how strong and loving Martin and Stevie’s relationship previously was, making its downfall more of an academic experience than an emotional one. There are certainly plenty of wry moments – but should we feel guilty for chuckling at this objectively horrifying situation? Is laughter, as Stevie suggests, just what we have to do in the face of something awful?

As the play goes on, more taboos are poked at and broken. As infidelity and incest join bestiality under the microscope, Albee asks why our society accepts some and not others. It should be provocative, yet it all still feels curiously emotionally detached. Perhaps it just all seems a bit ridiculous, precisely because these taboos are so ingrained? Do most of us simply have too much trouble believing that somebody could actually feel attracted to a goat, or to their own father, to reckon with the implications of the characters’ actions?

Plot aside, all four actors deliver solid performances, with Karvan’s skilful physicality a highlight. The dialogue is all in American accents, which I suspect unfortunately ended up detracting from the production overall. I wonder if allowing the actors to use their natural accents might have made the audience feel more connected to the characters and more implicated by the play’s social commentary – and whether it could have reduced or eliminated a few stumbles over lines. There’s no obvious reason the story has to be set in the US, and it doesn’t seem too complicated to switch out a couple of references to “the Midwest” and the Democratic Party to something more locally appropriate.

The set and lighting design choices are both excellent, with the family’s harmoniously-appointed living space descending into chaos alongside their relationships. As the lighting subtly shifts from day to evening, Martin and Stevie’s huge shadows appear on the walls, perhaps in echo of the larger social questions that their domestic drama raises.  

Does The Goat succeed as social commentary? I’m still not sure, but this production is an able one that will surely offer the audience plenty of fodder for post-theatre conversation.

3.5/5 stars

Matilda Handsley-Davis

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