No work of literary fiction makes such an impassioned defence of bestiality as Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? Damian Lewis plays Martin, a superstar architect whose life is perfect apart from one little thing… He’s screwing a goat. His wife is absolutely furious.
The absurd premise more than sustains an evening’s worth of gutter humour – a scene describing the livestock equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous is painfully funny – but Albee’s play also has a serious message about love and lust, shame and consent. There are shades of Nabokov’s exploration of forbidden desire in Lolita, and it contains explicit discussions of both gay and incestual relationships, with Albee – himself gay – using farce to address where the lines should be drawn when it comes to sex.
Lewis is outstanding, earnest and likeable despite his countryside liaisons. He’s a passenger in his own life, a man who had it all and lost it through his inability to control his libido.
While not as clever or profound as Albee’s more famous Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Goat is nonetheless a work of some complexity, the characters often tying themselves in linguistic knots; a recurring joke centres around the family’s pedantry, even in the face of adversity. The structure, meanwhile, mimics that of classic Greek drama (the word “tragedy” literally translates as “goat song”). By the end, farce and tragedy have switched places so many times they become interchangable.
Albee’s death at the end of last year was rather lost amid the macabre carousel of celebrity obituaries – this production, alongside the Harold Pinter Theatre’s concurrent version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, proves we’ve lost one of the greats.
First published in City A.M.