Two and a half hours, an extraordinarily intimate venue, a small cast, a script of high tragedy. A challenge, for sure. And one made all the greater by the fact that its subject is the unspeakable agony of falling in love… with a goat. Her name was Sylvia.
Tom Dowling gives a genuinely remarkable performance as Martin, the protagonist: his awkward, peculiarly frank conversation at the start belies the anguish that emerges in the second act. His expression is captivating, and the grin-and-bear-it approach demanded from him by other characters (he’s a public figure, and expected to appear as such) takes a visible toll. The best examples of this are his dialogue with Ross (Josh Dolphin) – who, incidentally, ought to be lauded to the heavens for his commitment to an accent – with the brusque tones of the latter providing a neat counterpoint to Martin’s inwardness, his anxiety.
Martin’s wife, Stevie (Sarah Abdoo) is an interesting character: her reaction to Martin’s revelations concerning his mistress consist primarily in sarcasm, peppered with occasional – almost incongruous – violence. A bookshelf is toppled, a 12” record shattered, a painting torn. The sheer physicality of this aggression is testament to a grief that, sadly, we never quite glimpse: her cynicism is clever and, at times, hilarious, but a slightly greater range of response would go a long way to add depth and complexity.
The play’s heart is sexuality, of course, but its more delicate implications stretch to impermissibility and cultural taboo as a whole: “’Is there anything we people don’t get off on?’ – Is there anything anyone doesn’t get off on?” There was one moment in particular between Martin and his son (Billy, played by Dan Byam Shaw) that elicited quiet gasps from all. Nothing is beyond challenge, nothing is sacred. It’s refreshing.
The Goat is not a lighthearted play. It has moments of comedy, but it isn’t funny. It’s harrowing. It’s a black, black romance, and our heartstrings are tugged to breaking point by Martin’s glistening eyes, when he talks about his first physical contact with the capricious Sylvia. As he and Stevie sit amongst the (literal) rubble of their home, it is impossible to take our eyes off their faces… Billy’s intrusion is almost unwelcome; he comes to the emotional scene too late – but also prevents it from descending into a tableau too static. If the play progressed at a much slower rate it would be tortuous; as it is, we have sufficient time to engage our emotional faculties, but not enough to wallow.
In short, this is a piece of tremendous character and huge demand, yet the cast have risen admirably to the challenge. We left Brasenose exhausted, but newly pensive: difficult questions are posed, but left unanswered. And it shouldn’t be any other way.