“Damian Lewis gives the performance of his life.” — Paul Taylor, The Independent
Damian Lewis has made a wonderful comeback to stage in Edward Albee’s late modern masterpiece The Goat or Who is Sylvia? at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Damian is headlining the play as Martin Gray and stars along the great Sophie Okonedo as Martin’s wife Stevie, Jason Hughes as Martin’s oldest and best friend Ross and the young rising star Archie Madekwe as Martin and Stevie’s son Billie. Tom Kirdahy Productions is producing and Ian Rickson, who was the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1998 to 2006, is directing the play. The previews started on March 24, and the play has had its Press Night – or Opening Night as we say for Broadway – last night! The play will have a strictly limited run until June 24.
Before the previews started, Damian was a guest on The Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 answering questions about why he is putting himself into this — doing a play — again, because it’s terrifying, isn’t it?
“Yeah, we’re in crack week. You know, Week 3… When we’re turning a quite good play into something quite terrible.
I’m doing it because, I think, to be serious for a second, I think theatre is important, Chris, and, I think, the coming together and sharing a story with a live audience, and you’re fresh and new minted every night is an exciting, congregational experience that we don’t have in our lives as much anymore.”
Evans then asks about what he calls “the preview malarkey.” If you read the play, and like it, and you like the director, and you rehearse it, why do you do “previews” in the actual theatre in front of live audiences several times before the opening night? Why don’t you go from rehearsals directly to the real run?
That is what Damian has to say about previews:
“You basically spend a lot of psychological energy convincing yourself that that’s all you’re going to do, that is you’re going to continue to reveal this work of art, this play, and it will continue to reveal itself and it will only ever be a work in progress and none of us feel the pressure of the press night — when the press come in, judge you, and then write personal things about you the next day in the national press.
So that is the sort of psychological trick you play on yourself, of course it’s all nonsense and you know you’re like a hamster on a wheel, you know, just furiously paddling to try to get it ready in time.
But what has started to happen here, which they do a bit on Broadway, is that they bring the press in now over two or three nights so the press night itself — the pressure is taken off. But now you run the risk then of a journalist coming in three days, basically, before you feel ready.”
Well, it seems Damian was beyond ready to rock and roll whenever the journalists came in to see The Goat! The reviews are IN and The Goat as well as Damian Lewis, in his portrayal of Martin Gray, whose unusual love affair ruins his seemingly ideal family life, SHINE! And now that we know he almost passed out on stage last night after getting diagnosed with a burst ear drum hours before the press night performance, we give STANDING OVATION to our favorite actor!
And big thanks go to Linda for sending us these news in print!
We have written about Damian’s return to stage and taken a first look at the play with no major spoilers in case anyone needs a refresher. Otherwise, let’s indulge ourselves in the press reviews and see the depth and brilliance Damian brings to The Goat. Please take this post as a work in progress. We will keep adding reviews as they come in. So, come back and check!
The first review that comes in could not make us happier! As much as we never had a doubt that Damian would be perfect as Martin Gray on stage, it is always reassuring to hear it from The Guardian‘s theatre critic Michael Billington, who had put The Goat into his “Must-See Theatre in 2017” list earlier in the year. Billington says “Damian Lewis shines in Albee’s Bestial Classic.” He gives the production five stars out of five!
Billington argues that Damian Lewis, as someone who is expert at playing characters with double lives, “now pushes his capacity for guilt-ridden secrecy to the limit as the transgressive hero of Edward Albee’s 2002 tragedy.” And he goes on to praise the convincing intimacy between the two leads on stage:
Lewis and Okonedo establish from the start a joshing intimacy that makes you believe they are a couple. They also show that, like George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, they have a concern with linguistic precision. But the crisis when it comes is terrifying and one in which they jointly suffer. Lewis perfectly captures Martin’s initial unease, as he absent-mindedly rubs his thigh with his glasses and looks through rather than at people. The high point comes, though, when he admits to the terrifying solitude that comes from being a sexual outlaw in a society where love has strict parameters.
Okonedo makes it clear, however, that the play is every bit as much Stevie’s tragedy. She covers the emotional gamut from disgust and horror to plate-smashing anger, as she listens to Martin’s confession and at one point utters a prolonged howl of despair. When Okonedo cries “You have brought me down”, you realise that, so close is her bond with her husband, she too has been destroyed.
Having read the play a couple of times, I wrote in an earlier post that the play needs VERY convincing performances from the two leads to be able to make the audiences imagine the unimaginable. The Stage critic Natasha Tripney, calling the Goat “a murky masterwork”, is giving credit where credit is due:
“Once you accustom yourself to his nasal and slightly strained accent, what’s most impressive about Damian Lewis’ performance as Martin is the reasonableness with which he discusses the situation – the calmness of his manner, his determination that people see the world as he does. The more things fall apart, the more compelling he becomes; there’s an exquisitely awful moment when he’s reminiscing about Sylvia and mimes their nuzzling.
Sophie Okonedo, as Stevie, arguably has the harder task. But her performance is rich, her emotional responses to the situation convincing; the sense of shock, anger, betrayal and pain palpable. It’s as if she constantly has to remind herself that this is really happening, that her husband is diddling a barnyard animal, and it hurts afresh each time. So, she sets about breaking every fragile thing in their opulent apartment.”
I admit I was first surprised by The Stage critic’s “nasal and slightly strained accent” comment but now we know that is coming from the terrible cold, passed around the company for the last few weeks, that decided to land on Damian only a few days ago. It seems he developed a middle ear infection complete with a perforated ear drum — if you had it, and I hope you never do, you know the kind of pain it gives. Being the trooper that he is, Damian decides that “the show must go on” but he admits he thought he would faint on stage in act three:
“There was one point in act three where I had to hold a chair because I was going to pass out and I had to stoop down to pick up a ruined painting. When I came up from there I thought I was going to pass out so I held on to a chair.”
Back to reviews: The Times acknowledges the strong performances from the entire cast:
“Lewis is five-star perfect here as Martin, who even at 50 has already started to forget things including, it seems, to mention his capra-esque tendencies. Okonedo, who is a furious rather than curious wife, is a superior crockery smasher. Their son, gay and vulnerable, is played by Archie Madekwe in a brilliant debut.”
The Evening Standard concurs:
“The play is ingeniously manipulative, and in Ian Rickson’s handsome production it’s a vivid portrait of a marriage under immense strain. When Martin and Stevie finally stare into the abyss, there’s an awkward poignancy. Okonedo’s interpretation of Stevie’s anger is full-bodied, and Lewis expertly conveys the nitpicking earnestness of a man determined to make his wild infatuation seem reasonable.”
Dom O’Hanlon of London Theatre gives four stars to The Goat and argues that the play works because of its attention to realism:
“Ian Rickson’s production remains faithfully literate and straight down the line, confronting the material head on and doesn’t attempt to mask in humour. Set in a beautiful and stylish apartment that exudes success, style and liberal tolerance, Rae Smith’s design is allowed a moment of expressionism as Martin’s familial world literally expands around him as he reveals his secret. It’s a slight move but one that acts as a signal on how we are to react. The drama works because of its attention to realism – when the set starts to fly, the glasses smash and the argument is explored head on, the room, much like Martin’s world, has expanded beyond comprehension.
The language remains course throughout and has a numbing effect the more vulgar it gets. What keeps characters inviting, particularly throughout Martin and Stevie’s extended argument, is the skilful wordplay that reveals two highly intellectual characters verbally spatting, correcting grammar and congratulating each other on their use of metaphors and references. This ultimately keeps it affecting, human and bitterly funny. As the family’s life crumbles and continues to disband they remain somewhat grounded and connected by their wordplay which in turn pushes the drama to become much more than a scene for marital angst.
Live Theatre UK critic Tim Hochstrasser says Damian Lewis has the most difficult job in the play and that he delivers:
“Lewis has the most difficult role of all, in making a potential figure of revulsion into a sympathetic character. However, he largely succeeds and in a much wider emotional range than he usually allows himself. It is a carefully constructed performance, initially showcasing the breezy, complacent swagger of a successful professional and family man alongside a process of alarming self-discovery that has to reveal at last an awareness of how his actions affect others catastrophically. This is a performance that has all the right lineaments in place and will only grow in affecting detail as the run progresses.”
Sarah Crompton of WhatsOnStage gives 4 stars to the production and enjoys the “clever details” of Damian’s stage performance:
Full of clever detail like the way Martin’s vagueness means he can never find a pocket in which to put his glasses, or the sense that he is caught unawares by his own emotion. He faces Stevie with a kind of defiance, his hands still at his sides, his head tilted as if bracing himself against her accusations. The conflict between them sometimes flows like a perfectly orchestrated aria.”
Crompton perceives The Goat as a reminder of why Albee’s genius did not fade away and that he could “still nail the vagaries of the human soul right to the end.”
Finally, Paul Taylor of The Independent, chimes in a day later with one of the best reviews of the play, and in particular of Damian’s performance!
“Damian Lewis (of Homeland fame) gives the performance of his life. He’s the still-preppy-after-all-these-years pedant who corrects other people’s grammar (“whom!”) even as he gingerly reveals his, erm, pet perversion. And he’s as much the butt of demonic possession as any Euripidean protagonist. He opens his wallet and shyly takes out a passport photo of the goat, which he hands round as if she were the young lovely he was squiring to her first prom.”
It’s well-deserved PARTY TIME for The Goat cast and crew at Grand Cafe Villandry! And even though he is sick, Damian is in a good mood:
“I’m high as a kite on performance-enhancing drugs, which luckily aren’t illegal in the theatre, but I’ve got tremendous pain in my right ear at the moment because of the pressure.”
We wish him the speediest recovery possible!
You can see more photos from the Press Night After Party on Getty Images.