Actors Rep delivers convincing debut with The Goat

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by Graham Cleverley

Retired Indian Army Colonel 1:

Did you hear about Carruthers?

Retired Indian Army Colonel 2:

No. What happened to him?

Retired Indian Army Colonel 1:

Found in <cough> somewhat irregular position with his horse.

Retired Indian Army Colonel 2:

Good Gad. With his horse!

Retired Indian Army Colonel 1:

Well, no, his mare of course – there's nothing queer about Carruthers.

So run the immortal tales of Carruthers, who may be the hero of the most ancient still current joke, as well as the subject (or one of the subjects) of Edward Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, currently being very ably directed at the Théâtre Nationale by Erik Abbott for Actors Repertory Theatre.

Or, at least, overt subject. The play presents ultra-successful architect, Martin, about to celebrate his 50th birthday and the award of some Nobel-like Prize, his overtly loving and beloved wife Stevie and their troubled and troublesome, teenage son, Billy. A perfect setup one feels, for tragedy, be it Sophocles, Coriolanus, Othello, or El Cid. That Albee had something like this in mind, is indicated in the title: the word 'tragedy' meant originally 'Goat Song'.

The character flaw that brings everyone down gets its chance early on when Martin's 'best friend' Ross, interviewing him on camera for a TV programme, tells him that for some time he had been showing the signs of mental distraction, and teases him that they are signs he is having an affair. Ross is amused, and asks questions in a joking manner. But that changes, when Martin says that the affair is with a goat.

A nanny goat, he insists, making a point calling her 'her'. (What I assume is known as the Carruthers defence).

Tolerance pushed to breaking point

But that defence doesn't get him far with any of the others, 'liberal' and 'democratic' though they may claim to be. (When the teenage Billy talks about what great parents they were, he asks: “You are Democrats?” Martin replies “More than they are sometimes.”) And no more tolerant than you might expect them to be, despite their membership in minorities. Wife Stevie is a woman, Billy is homosexual, Ross, at least in this production is black.

And Martin himself is not above calling his son a “fucking faggot.”

Ross simply argues that bestiality is essentially wrong (apparently because if you were a politician it would destroy you), and demonstrates its dominance over the 'best friend' relationship by secretively passing on the information to Stevie, who explodes in a manner (despite what she says) one imagines she would on the news that Martin was enjoying an affair with another woman (or man or animal) including blowing into an existential and suicidal rage that provides as Greek a final curtain as one could imagine. She does so after meticulously making Martin go through every physical step of his loving the goat.

Billy does at last come to terms with his father, accepting that his own experience of himself was of necessity, and listening to Martin's continuing defence of love as always righteous, combined with the question "Who is harmed?" But by then it's too late for argument, Stevie having preempted it.

By which point the classic universality the play at the start seems to target has minimised (or magnified) into a clash of individuals in a family, a typically Albee tack, and indeed of American drama generally a generation or two ago. (On The Waterfront, Of Mice and Men). These neither are nor were about Everyman.

Acting and directing that "ought to be seen"

In so doing it has been splendidly served by cast and crew. Direction is unobtrusive, fast but not hasty (it runs slower than the original was billed, helpfully so since there is no interval). Timothy Lone, as Martin, nails down the development of the original indecisive confusion of Martin to the questioning conviction of his final stages beautifully.

Bram de Vet, holding his own in such experienced company, is a touch too old for the part of Billy for it to be as effective as it could be. He needs to be feeling the early pull of his sexuality; he seems here to already too certain of himself.

Alexander Thomas' Ross also has a transition to make: from your more-or-less traditional joking and teasing 'best friend' to someone whose tolerance flips back to 17th century Massachusetts, when faced with behaviour that he 'knows is wrong'. No flaws in a convincing performance.

Louisa Graf as Stevie has the most chance to excel, and takes it with passion. She turns from apparently loving wife, into a virago who sweeps every other character (along with all throwable props) out of the screen and off of the stage.

Basically the audience ducks. Until finally she does as she promised and 'brings Martin down' the way - as she says - he has brought everyone down. A brilliant performance, with for me one small flaw. She reaches climax too early, rather than having it build up, build up till finally she cracks and runs off.

A splendid evening's theatre, though, that ought to be seen. Then someone might be able to explain to me how anybody could write a whole play about goats, name one character 'Billy' and give no reason.

The Goat is on at the Théâtre National in Route de Longwy on June 5 & 6, and June 10 - 12. To book tickets visit tnl.lu