“I wonder when he’ll start cruising livestock?” That’s the question that Stevie, wife to Martin, bitterly suggests she should have started asking herself as their marriage moved into its maturity. For the cataclysm at the bruised heart of Edward Albee’s 2002 play is a startling act of animal passion. Martin, 50-year-old husband and father, celebrated architect, has fallen wildly in love, and been extravagantly, and carnally, unfaithful to Stevie – with a goat. He has fancifully named this adored ruminant Sylvia, and now he is consumed by the strength of his feelings. Not only does he love Sylvia, but he is adamant that she loves him back. A more searing test of his and Stevie’s liberal ideals would be hard to imagine.
Albee is, of course, referencing Greek myth, with its bestial couplings, its priapic, hooved hybrid creatures from Pan to the Minotaur, its bloody catastrophes and its acts of sacrifice. This is a domestic tragedy, in which the suffering is acute, but we are permitted – and encouraged – to laugh. Ian Rickson’s production has a high-voltage intensity that gives the mirth a dangerous, hysterical edge – and it is beautifully acted by Damian Lewis as Martin and Sophie Okonedo as Stevie.
Their life together has been one of bohemian chic – but by the end of the play, the walls of their home, designed in modish exposed brick by Rae Smith, are literally closing in on them. Martin has just been awarded a prestigious prize, and is due to record a TV interview with an old friend, Ross (Jason Hughes). But his mind is elsewhere; he can’t focus, or remember the most mundane details. He is caught up in the ecstasy of love. Through the smooth prattle of domesticity – the shopping, the flower arrangements – seeps a pungent sense of foreboding. There’s a sound like beating wings and rushing wind – is it the Eumenides, as Martin jokes, or just the dishwasher? And when he confesses to his taboo-shattering liaison, Lewis seems blankly, cruelly incapable of comprehending either the breadth of his transgression, or the depth of his family’s distress. Chaos reigns, yet he can’t resist correcting people’s grammar.
Meanwhile Okonedo, as majestic as a Clytemnestra in her towering rage, tears the room apart, overturning and smashing everything in her path. Their son, Billy (Billy the Kid? Billy Goat? Either way, his name is one of Albee’s crasser jokes) cowers and sobs. As played by Archie Madekwe, he’s stripped painfully raw by the conflict – not least because his father, ironically, makes no secret of his distaste for his son’s homosexuality. And for all the talk of congress with a quadruped, it’s Archie’s desperate planting of a sexualised kiss on his father’s lips that seems more shocking.
What does all of this add up to? Despite the skill of the staging and the tautness of the performances, the play feels contrived. It urges us to consider the limits of love and tolerance, but despite its noise and fury, it never makes us care very much. It’s a curious and in some ways confounding piece – a provocation that nuzzles and butts its themes about, but never quite locks horns with them.