Review: The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? At The John Cooper Theatre

I can only recommend that you see this play immediately. It is rare to get a production of this calibre in York. Pickmeup Theatre have done it again by pushing the boundaries of the art form and provoking our response.

By Angie Millard

Photos by Matthew Kitchen Photography

The set and auditorium gives the impression of being in a chic sitting room and we feel part of the action which is all the more engaging as this play shocks and surprises in equal measures.

Martin, a successful, prize-winning architect is being filmed in interview by his best friend Ross and it becomes clear that all is not well. Ross gradually extracts from Martin a shocking and bizarre secret that he is in love…. not with a woman but in love with Sylvia, who is a goat. Brian Bounds plays this character with absolute sincerity and as he describes the eyes of his beloved and shows his friend a photo, we are drawn in.

Ross, played by Mick Liversidge, is a blustering, unimaginative character. He is filled with disgust and the performance Liversidge gives maintains this energetically to the end. He acts as the vox pop of condemnation. As his friend, he handles this knowledge badly telling Martin’s wife in a letter. Liversidge portrays moral outrage and voices the shock felt when someone breaks the accepted rules in society. When Billy, Martin’s son, shouts in disbelief: ‘you’re fucking a goat?’ We know that the truth is out.

His wife Stevie, played by Susannah Baines, begins the play bantering with her husband. She establishes a believable relationship born of 22 years of happy marriage and the transition she achieves as she tries to understand and process the incredible truth is superbly acted. She creates a highly dramatic and effective accompaniment to her husband’s telling of his story by calmly smashing objects in their home punctuating every detail with minor destruction. This makes her final action at the end of the play blood curdling. She is utterly lost and howls: ‘you have brought me down… I’ll bring you down with me’.

Their son Billy, played with heartbreaking vulnerability by Will Fealy, struggles to express his distress and, while he cannot accept his father’s actions, embraces him and kisses him on the mouth offering us further confusion. It is as though we are being asked to accept the breakdown of all our private mores and re-think what was previously taken for granted. Bryan Bounds, by playing this as a reasonable premise, adds to the shock. His insistence on correct use of language adds an Albee-esque quirk to distance us from what is being said and allow reflection.

Albee says: ‘I want everybody to be able to think about what they can’t imagine and what they have buried deep as being intolerable and insufferable. I want them to think freshly and newly about it’. In ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’ Albee ruthlessly examined the internal and secret working of a marriage. This play looks into the working of the mind. Critics have talked about the word ‘scapegoat’ and a poster in Philadelphia had Martin hanging from the mouth of a goat as if being devoured which symbolically is what is happening.

The play is about love, loss and finally our tolerance. How far are we prepared to go to extend our boundaries of what is normal? It was premiered in 2002 on Broadway and as Albee’s last play interestingly mirrors the shape of Greek Tragedy. We have a great man destroyed through a fatal flaw and all we can think is ‘thank God that isn’t me’. This is what catharsis, or the classical concept of emotional cleansing is all about. Baines’ final entrance expresses the inevitable and only conclusion of the play. The director and cast bravely confront this.

I was deeply affected by the production. The performances were tightly constructed and Mark Hird has managed to show subtly shaded characters. There are some wonderful comic sequences such as when Martin describes a meeting of the like-minded ‘animal lovers’ and uses some very funny throw away lines. There are similarly tragic ones which are beautifully written and I couldn’t help but empathise with Martin in his impossible dilemma. But most of all I felt utterly disturbed and I guess I was meant to do so.

Go and see this exceptional piece of theatre and judge for yourselves.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? was performed at The John Cooper Theatre between Feb 23 and 27. It was directed by Mark Hird. Lighting was by Adam Moore.