‘That goat’ or ‘What’s to love about Sylvia & the others’

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I ended up at the Royal Haymarket theatre mostly – I admit it – because the big names on the poster did the job. I came out in a state of ecstatic confusion and, logically, the week after I went back for more. I have no doubt the internet has already been filled with reviews, much more detailed and focused on the technical side than anything I could ever write. Instead, I’d like to share what happened to my head while I was in there, because I am convinced they should add a post-show therapy session and make it compulsory.

They will tell you the acting is amazing, and they are absolutely right. Sophie Okonedo steals the stage, as much as her character – Stevie – almost outshines all the men. Her performance is an emotional rollercoaster, with peaks of hysteria and genius, which often collide. There will never be words powerful enough to describe how appropriate, how perfectly tailored Damian Lewis’ acting is. He has a talent for being the one nobody listens to, the one who’s wrong (for those of you who have watched Homeland, it’s ‘Q&A’ all over again), and I think this is how he creates the emotional link with his audience, regardless of how messed up his character is. Archie Madekwe is simply brilliant as Martin’s son: the real plot twist of the play is his revelation. Jason Hughes brings to life an exceptionally realistic character in the middle of a crazy plot and, even when I disagree with his choices, I share his being completely at a loss.

If I were a linguist, my brain would have exploded. Everything in the text is so appropriate, everything fits and comes back. The play raises so many issues that it would be hard, for me, to find an angle for a review. But isn’t that what life does? We can’t pause the rest of our life because we are dealing with one issue; we call it dealing because we need to understand and manage its existence in relation to all aspects of our life, and see how it affects each and all of them. Shit happens, usually with a domino effect.

I can’t pick one final point the play is making. I can’t even say I know what the point is – frankly, I would be scared of someone who could walk out of that play saying ‘oh, yes, I got it!’. I will proceed by quotations, those two or three lines that slapped my sinapsis hard in the face (yes, they do have faces, you should have seen their expressions in front of The Kiss.)

I realised I was crying about half an hour into the show. I think I had already shed a tear or two before, but I was too busy laughing my arse off to notice it. ‘How can you love me, when you love so much less?’ Something in my head just clicked. This line sounded like a painful reminder that society does not allow us to love someone who is perceived as our inferior. Someone with a sexual orientation or of a gender still undefined, not yet approved by the public opinion. Someone with a disability, either physical or mental. Someone poorer than you. Someone less smart or – god forbid – less ambitious. A man who can’t provide for his family. A woman who can’t have children.

(Please somebody stop me.)

‘And here we thought it had to do with love and loss.’  But, hey, it’s not: love is not a private, intimate experience. It’s okay to marry for love and not for interest. And yet. ‘Be careful who you fall in love with.’ – which, once Stevie’s reasoning is completed, goes back to ‘be careful who you marry’. Love is a public action, a complex form of human interaction where past and future lovers must be taken into account. We only exists in relation to others, we are incapable of describing ourselves per se. We’re somebody’s ex, somebody’s wife. And, in our relationships, we act accordingly: we find constant reinforcement of our value (or lack of thereof) by comparing the way people in our life interact with us rather than with others. If the guy dumps me, then he settles for someone less smart than me, I am reassured he’s an idiot, it’s his loss, and there’s nothing wrong with me.

Or, picture the usual Sunday family lunch. Everyone is talking about that friend of a friend of auntie Em, whose husband ran away with another man. And then, you start listening more carefully and realise they are actually debating whether the fact that “the other woman” is man would make it better or worse.

And here I thought it had to do with love and loss, not about value and humiliation. Love is never about love.

Martin’s love for this unfortunate goat  goes against any stereotype – or perhaps simply any type – of love. It’s filthy and depraved in the act itself, but it doesn’t fit into any category. It is not the consequence of a trauma, they even point that out in the script. He is not coming out as a man who is usually attracted to goats, not even to goats in general – it is more like Sylvia simply happens to be a goat. Truth is, we have no idea of what the hell it is, so we don’t know how to process this discovery. So is the tragedy for his family – unspeakable, in the most literal way, because nobody has any clue how to address it. Stevie says it well: lots of things – even Death – are as awful as they can get, but they come with the instruction book.  This is why we know how to process them, we learn the universally approved reaction. When you are sad, you can cry. If you don’t, well, it might take a while to convince people of your actual emotional state.

How do we get out? How can we produce our own, personal reaction to what life throws at us? Stevie, that masterpiece of a character, so compelling and witty, can. She goes through a crazy yet perfectly logical (and relatable) elaboration of grief and comes back, in my opinion, victorious. She ponders, she screams, she listens (or not); in the end, she resolves it was, indeed, about love and loss. In her final gesture, she elevates the infamous goat to the role Martin wanted for her – a rival, an equal.

When you think you can’t get more thrown off-balance, here comes Billy, just to shake things up with another moral challenge. I suppose it would be a small comfort to know that your romantic feelings for your own father are not the most unhealthy vibes in the room. I am not going there, to underline Martin’s infinite fatherly tenderness in handling Billy’s confession (the most authentic and brave father/son interaction I’ve seen in ages) because that scene was so beautifully played by both actors I still feel uncomfortable just thinking about it.

What now?

I have barely scratched the surface of what this play did to my head. I loved every bit, including the title, that title that now makes much more sense to me. It’s a play about a goat, we know that; or, is it? We know what it is, but who is it? Who is she? Who is Sylvia? What does she stand for? Which pronoun should be use for her? In my opinion, there are two ways you read this story: you can see the goat, Edward Albee’s goat, the actual goat he threw into this crazy plot; or you can see Sylvia, whoever she is, she was and she might be, and be assured you won’t get any answer to those questions.

I’ll go for the latter, and you should, too. Be brave. Be reckless. Pick a play whose title ends with a question mark and whose ending is a blank stare, because nothing will ever feel more realistic and relatable than that.

[written by Alessandra Cenni; edited by Alice di Mattia]

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