JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 22.4.10
4 stars ****
EVERY NOW AND THEN, a show comes along that people just have to see, if only to share in the intense conversation it generates; and for Edinburgh theatregoers, Dominic Hill’s masterly Scottish premiere production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? seems set to become one of those shows. First seen in 2002, at a time when the controversial young star of American 1960’s theatre had already reached his Seventies, The Goat is a ferocioualy brave investigation of a truth that even the cheapest love-song acknowledges: the strange paradox that although romantic and sexual love gives our whole lives a sense of meaning and joy, the love itself can often be entirely meaningless, directed at those who seem magical to us for no reason at all.
It’s Albee’s genius, though, to push this truth to a bizarre extreme by exploring the plight of Martin, a successful 50-year-old architect, 22 years into a happy marriage with his wife Stevie, whose life blows apart after he confesses to his best friend that he has fallen in love with a goat called Sylvia, and is having an affair with her. According to Martin, his love for the goat is simply a phenomenon that cannot be denied, as deep and true as his love for Stevie; but to Stevie, it is a final emotional calamity, the utter destruction of her happiness.
And that, more or less, is that: poor Martin undergoes so little real dramatic development during the play that it seems slightly overlong, even at a brisk 85 minutes. In the ferocious strength of the dialogue between Martin and Stevie, though – like a tightly-wound tragic version of the famous marital rows in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – Albee creates an investigation into the whole concept of meaning, metaphor, morality and catastrophe that echoes and re-echoes in our minds; and every detail of this conversation is exquisitely understood by John Ramm and Sian Thomas, in a pair of profoundly intelligent, funny and tragic performances. Just what this deliberately West-End-style show has to do with the Traverse’s remit of encouraging new playwriting in Scotland is a reasonable question, for future debate. But for now, Edinburgh plays host to a pair of world-class performances, in one of the most intriguing plays of the last decade; and 45 years after his last outing at the Traverse, Albee is reborn as a playwright whose power to ask troubling questions seems undimmed, almost half a century on.