Review: The Goat or Who is Sylvia

Bryan Bounds and Will Fealy as Martin Gray and his son Billy in The Goat. Photographs: Matthew Kitchen Photography

The American playwright Edward Albee (1918-2016) is best known for his masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a visceral unpacking of the misalliance between George, a university professor of history, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the college president, vividly captured on film by Mike Nicholls and the Burtons in the 1966 Hollywood movie.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia

However, he was also a graduate (or one might say a survivor) of the school of largely European dramatists of the 1950s (including Arthur Adamov, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco) labelled ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ in a ground-breaking work of criticism of the same name by Martin Esslin in 1962.

And all of this knowledge helps us to come to terms with Albee’s much later work, The Goat or Who is Sylvia which premiered on Broadway in 2002 and now comes before us in a brand new production by Pick Me Up Theatre at 41 Monkgate until Saturday 29 February.

Challenging subject

Susannah Baines and Bryan Bounds as Stevie and Martin Gray

This is not a difficult play, in which the two main strands of Albee’s work, the dysfunctional family unit and the existentialist view of life as absurd, come together, but some of its subject matter is challenging to say the least.

Before the play begins we are presented with a comfortable trendy monochrome living room setting. In a superb (uncredited) piece of design the audience is placed on three sides of the stage and on the same level, maximising this theatre’s potential for intimacy.

When the lights come up the room is soon populated with Martin, a prize-winning architect, his wife Stevie and their teenage son Billy.

Will Fealy as Billy Gray

They are apparently a very happy and successful ideal family unit and exemplars of the American Dream but very soon the cracks begin to show. Conflicting attitudes to love and sexuality culminate at the end of scene one in a confession on Martin’s part that is so shocking Stevie dismisses it as a joke.

In scene two the revelation of Martin’s behaviour is confirmed in a letter to Stevie from their best friend Ross (a TV presenter, naturally) to whom Martin first came clean. Then all hell breaks loose in a scene of domestic violence reminiscent of Martha and George in Albee’s aforementioned sixties classic.

Casual erudition on the playwright’s part informs but never obscures some of the best dramatic writing I have seen in York for some time. ‘Who is Sylvia’ is the title of a song about an ideal lover from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and the play’s subtitle ‘Notes Towards a Definition of Tragedy’ alludes to the original meaning of ‘tragedy’ which is ‘goat-song’. 

Greek drama

Mick Liversidge as Martin’s best friend Ross Tuttle

Other echoes of Greek drama include the play’s observation of the classical dramatic unities of time, place and action, a reference to the Furies, major incidents taking place offstage and an ultimately unresolved tragic conclusion leaving us with the question: “What would you have done in the circumstances?”

Managing comedy’s shift towards tragedy is very tricky and this company makes it look easy under Mark Hird’s sensitive and unobtrusive direction. Bryan Bounds and Susannah Baines are superb as the warring couple.

They remain totally in control of both themselves and their audience throughout in a tremendous example of ensemble playing. They are ably supported by Mick Liversidge as Ross and Will Fealy (a name to watch for the future) as Billy. Do make an effort to see this if you can: it’s only on until Saturday.