It used to be easy to dismiss the West End as an adult playground of jukebox musicals and expensive icecreams, but that doesn’t feel so true anymore. There’s been an influx of classic drama (including another Albee play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). And with them, a chance to contemplate the weirdness that is Ian Rickson’s straight-down-the-line, straight-to-West End revival of Edward Albee’s 2002 play – an unlikely star vehicle for Damian Lewis, without so much as an interval to sell drinks in.
For me, that weirdness means confronting the fact that the character I sympathised most deeply with was the almost-entirely-offstage titular one. I mean, look at those jaunty ears. That mild, quizzical expression. Those soulful, brown eyes whose unreadable depths contain multitudes.
I’m going to stop before it gets weird, but Damian Lewis’s character doesn’t: he plays the middle-aged unlikely seducer of one such beautiful goat. He’s an acclaimed architect and Dad to a teenage son, told continually by his childhood friend Ross that he’s at the pinnacle of his existence. On a trip to buy a summer house, he falls for Sylvia, a beautiful goat. The full, grim, story is teased out of him first by Ross, then by his wife Stevie.
Stevie, still under the illusion that her rival is a human woman, bitterly chokes up a few lines of Shakespeare: “Who is Silvia? What is she,/ That all our swains do thus commend her?” She and her husband are constantly quoting back and forth, and congratulating each other on their eruditeness, even as each quote starts to feel more bitterly ironic than the last.
What this quotestorm highlights is how Martin’s one-sided love affair acts as a goatish comment on, or parody of, the kind of lazy love stories that ring through centuries of poetry and prose. Sylvia’s fairness and quiet compliance are the only qualifications she needs to be loved, and her radiant silence points to the cultural paradox that associates purity with simplicity. By comparison, equal grown-up relationships like Martin and Stevie’s are messy, or dirty.
Quentin Letts’ one star review both signals and misses the point: he writes that “There may possibly be ways a play about capraphilia could work. You could do it as something Kafkaesque, detached from reality. You could try playing it for zany, surreal laughs – after all, Martin’s son is called Billy. You could go for a Dennis Wheatley touch and ham up the occult horror. You could turn it into a sweet fable, though that would involve cutting the endless F-words.”
You could do all of these things. But Albee uses capraphilia (new word klaxon) to show how toxic romantic fantasies can be when they collide with the real world – and Martin’s obsession feels only a few steps away from the uncomfortable, but more socially acceptable way that older men chase after nimble younger women.
Damian Lewis’s performance is all elaborate hand motions and oddly blank eyes – a man who’s retreating into the fantasy land inside his head as a comforting alternative to the demands of the real world. Opposite him, Sophie Okonedo is painfully real and brilliantly furious, reducing their living room furniture to earth in a desperate, failed bid to bring him back down to earth. And their teenage son Billy (Archie Madekwe) sheds the tears that neither of his parents can muster, his homosexuality overshadowed by this new, greater transgression.
Although a few reviews (Quentin Letts’ included) have summarised the play as a misguided plea for sexual liberalism, to me, it felt like the opposite: it’s a wonderfully complex exploration of the boundaries of sexual freedom, of where we should put up fences and where we should let desire roam free. Martin’s romanticised, blind bestiality is a million miles from his gay son’s self-aware, awkward universal horn.
And it forced me into sympathising, most of all, with the offstage Sylvia. And that’s not (just) because I’m a soppy vegetarian. She’s a receptacle for the most kind of destructive desire: a single-minded, passionate, pure one, directed at a beautiful object. The love that other West End shows (from Phantom to 42nd Street) praise in bright lights. And the love that deserves the good kicking it gets from this agile, glossy-coated, sharp-toothed play.