You’ll never look at Damian Lewis in quite the same way again after seeing this play.
The Wolf Hall and Homeland star plays Martin, an eminent American architect with a perfect life: an award-winning career, a beautiful and devoted wife (Sophie Okonedo), an upstanding teenage son, a tasteful home. Then he has an affair with a goat, the eponymous Sylvia.
Edward Albee’s 2002 play is absurd, funny and thought-provoking. It’s a rare chance to see Lewis do comedy and he doesn’t hold back. His Martin is stiff and mannered, every inch the prep school boy rather than the freethinking liberal he purports to be; he might have stepped out of an Oscar Wilde play. Only when he speaks of his beloved Sylvia does he loosen up: suddenly he comes over all earnest about a love that seems so natural to him.
Albee passed away last September and is currently in vogue in the West End. Like his brilliant black comedy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which Imelda Staunton is currently starring in at the Harold Pinter Theatre (read our five-star review), The Goat is about a marriage that degenerates into a cut-and-thrust sparring match.
Both Martin and his wife are linguistic pedants. They’re so busy correcting each other’s grammar and trying to remember the right word, they can barely hold a conversation. In Albee’s universe, language is another set of rules; it entangles and trips up others. Perhaps that’s why Martin falls for the mute Sylvia after simply gazing into her eyes.
Okonedo puts in a virtuoso performance as his wife Stevie. When she learns of her husband’s infidelity, she ricochets round the stage: livid, sardonic and grief-stricken by turns. Their marriage doesn’t just suffer severe cracks; it’s smashed to bits by Stevie’s energetic crockery-throwing. Like Lewis, her comic timing is as spot-on as her aim.
It’s their son Billy we really pity, thanks to an impressive and raw performance from Fresh Meat actor Archie Madekwe who makes his professional stage debut. Ironically, Martin hasn’t accepted his son’s homosexuality and there are obvious parallels with the way so-called civilised society was repulsed by homosexuality in the not so distant past.
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? poses serious questions about society’s moral strictures and our sexual appetites. It’s young Billy who is responsible for the most shocking transgression of the evening. Just when the audience has got over – maybe even started to accept – Martin’s bestiality, Albee throws another forbidden fruit into the mix.
At Theatre Royal Hay Market until 24 June