“Four decades after ‘Virginia Woolf’ sent shock waves through the mainstream theater, Mr. Albee still asks questions that no other major American dramatist dares to ask.”
Ben Brantley, NY Times Critic, 2002
We are extremely thrilled Damian Lewis is making a wonderful comeback to stage in the West End revival of Edward Albee’s late masterpiece The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Damian is headlining the play as Martin Gray along with Sophie Okonedo playing Martin’s wife Stevie, Archie Madekwe as his son Billy and Jason Hughes as his oldest friend Ross. Tom Kirdahy Productions is producing and Ian Rickson, who served as the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1998 to 2006, is directing the play. And as if we needed another reason to get excited about it, The Guardian critic Michael Billington cites The Goat in his Unmissable Theatre of 2017 list! Damian has also recently been on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC2 Radio to talk about his return to stage. You can hear the program here and Damian’s bit starts at around 1:40:00.
The Goat is arguably the most provocative and controversial play by Albee who unfortunately passed away last September at the age of 88. The play won all the major theater awards; namely Tony, New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle, for Best New Play of the Year when it was first staged on Broadway in 2002. As we hope it will repeat that with Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo at the helm, it’s time for a first look, without any major spoiler, at The Goat!
Well, it’s time to meet The Grays!
Martin Gray is a prominent architect who has just turned 50 and become the youngest person to receive the Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel prize in architecture” and is starting a two hundred billion dollar project designing a city of the future set to rise in the Midwest. Martin is married to Stevie, in Martin’s own words, a “smart, resourceful, and intrepid” woman, to whom he has been faithful in the 22 years they have been together. They love their son, Billy, who is 17 and has recently come out as gay. It seems everything is going right for The Grays.
But one of the first lines Stevie delivers sets the tone:
“The sense that everything going right is a sure sign that everything’s going wrong, of all the awful to come?”
The couple is waiting for Ross, Martin’s oldest and best friend, who will come to interview Martin about Pritzker Prize for his TV program. While Stevie makes casual conversation, Martin seems to be having a bad memory day. He forgets what day it is, has difficulty remembering Ross’ son’s name and cannot recognize the two business cards he finds in his coat pocket. When his wife jokes maybe he is having an affair with the woman whose business card he has, Martin admits he is having an affair and they have a good laugh about it. Ross arrives and Stevie leaves to have her hair done.
Martin is extremely distracted during the interview that Ross understands there is something wrong and cuts the interview. Finally, not being able to hold his secret anymore, Martin confides in his friend that he is having an affair with Sylvia. Ross insists to know who Sylvia is. Ross’ reaction when Martin shows him Sylvia’s picture confirms what Damian Lewis has recently said about the play:
“Laceratingly funny… Heart breaking… Mind Bending.”
Now that Martin has shared his secret with Ross, there is no going back for him. Martin loses control over his life and needs to face whatever is to come his way. How will the Grays, who have just fallen from the top of the world to the bottom of the deepest hole, solve a problem like Sylvia?
The Goat draws a lot of laughter from the reader with its fantastic use of humor, yet it is ultimately a tragedy. A story of a man being reduced from this genius architect, great husband and father to, in his son’s words “a pervert” cannot be a comedy. And, I don’t think neither Albee putting “notes toward a definition of a tragedy” in parentheses below the title of the play nor the Greek word for tragedy tragoidia (tragos “goat” – oida “song”) literally meaning “goat song” is a coincidence.
Albee’s brilliance in switching the mood every couple of minutes makes you laugh hard, and then think hard, laugh hard again, and face terrible sadness, and ultimately takes you out of your comfort zone and lets you ponder what YOU would do should you have been, god forbid, in these people’s shoes.
The Goat is about love, the way we understand love, the kind of love we find acceptable and not acceptable in connection with the moral values we hold and the social taboos we create as a society. Edward Albee comments in Stretching My Mind, a collection of his essays that I suspect Damian may have read in order to get into the mind of this brilliant playwright:
“The play is about love, and loss, the limits of our tolerance and who, indeed, we really are.”
The Goat provokes us to think about our understanding of love and how to deal with the unimaginable. I LOVE the way Albee shares what he expects from The Goat audience on Charlie Rose show (see the interview at your own risk since there are major spoilers!) in 2002:
“Imagine what you can’t imagine. Imagine that, all of a sudden, you found yourself in love with a Martian, in love with something you can’t conceive of. 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 just think freshly and newly about it.
I wanted to find something so out of that which we consider possible that we even think about it as conceivably happening and make us relate it to ourselves. And so I had to go that far away. I mean, there are so many things one can fall in love with, that are tolerable, I suppose, though outlandish, you know. The old theory, you know, “stick to your own kind.” Well, that’s pretty limiting, these days especially. I wanted something that was so inconceivable to force us to think about that which we have such knee-jerk and instant reaction that this cannot be even considered and thought. And that’s what I wanted.
“Stick to your own kind.” It makes me remember a story that an older colleague shared with me at a dinner party. His grandmother, the matriarch of the family, was a loving but rigid woman. When he was about to leave home for college in early 1960s, she offered to take a walk together. She knew he would find a girlfriend in college and she had ideas about what kind of a young woman this girlfriend should be. “Stick to your own kind”, she said. Don’t marry a non-Catholic and don’t marry a Democrat.” Well, I know his wife very well. She is not what my colleague’s grandmother wished for 🙂
As Albee asks the audience to imagine the unimaginable, I can personally apply this situation into my own life. My husband and I are not as wealthy or successful as Martin Gray but we have been, exactly like Martin and Stevie, together for 22 years, we are doing pretty okay financially and professionally and I believe, exactly like Stevie does, I have the best marriage in the world. What if my husband confessed he was in love with Sylvia? How would I deal with that?
The problem Martin and Stevie wrestle with in the play is extremely complicated that The Goat requires very convincing performances from the two leads for which I believe Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo are just perfect! And here is a first glimpse of what the two leads talk about when they talk about The Goat 🙂
Edward Albee is known for writing strong and highly intelligent female characters, say Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Agnes in A Delicate Balance, another fantastic Albee play I had the pleasure of seeing with with Glenn Close as Agnes. I know it will be a true delight to see Sophie Okonedo, who has a subtle yet very powerful stage presence, as Stevie in The Goat.
The Goat is the story of a man destroying his own life, a life many would kill to have. There is a scene towards the end of the play where you feel Martin as the loneliest man on the planet and I cannot imagine an actor other than Damian pulling that off. And add to this the man’s perfect comedic timing which I witnessed live in American Buffalo, and those lucky ones among us, my friends, can get ready for a real treat.
The previews at Theatre Royal Haymarket start on March 24, the press night is on April 5, and it is a strictly limited run that has to close on June 24. Tickets are selling fast that if you plan to go see The Goat, make sure you book your tickets as soon as possible. And for BEST prices, it is always a better idea to book tickets online at the theatre’s website rather than through other agencies.