Theatre review: The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Albee's classic play questioning the limits of social taboos gets a modern spin.

In his director’s note for this State Theatre Company South Australia production, Mitchell Butel explains that he wanted to revisit Edward Albee’s provocative tragicomedy, The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? to see whether this exploration of social taboos and morality would be as impactful today as it was two decades ago: ‘Can anything still shock us?’

If the nervous chatter that erupted on opening night as soon as the lights came up and continued out in the foyer (punctuated here and there by the stunned silence of those whose mouths were still hanging open) was anything to go by, the answer is: yes, it can.

As Stevie Gray (Claudia Karvan) says upon learning of her husband’s secret, the ‘one thing you don’t put on your plate, no matter how exotic your tastes may be, is bestiality’. Sudden death, illness, infidelity or painful emotional disengagement are all standard tragic material: deeply distressing, of course, but factors that anyone who participates in social relationships must accept as possibilities.

With The Goat, Albee was interested in exploring what happens when something occurs for which we have no frame of reference, that seems to break some fundamental rule of the social ‘game’. This is what the picture-perfect middle-class Gray family must reckon with when husband and father Martin Gray (Nathan Page) reveals that he has been having an affair with a goat named Sylvia. 

In Act 1, Stevie and Martin are affectionate and jocular as they prepare for Martin’s interview with television presenter friend Ross (Mark Saturno) in celebration of Martin’s recent personal and professional milestones. Karvan’s and Page’s self-consciously witty patter feels a little overdone here. Their comedic talents are more powerfully in evidence in Act 2, when the humour is darker and used as a defence mechanism in their arguments about Sylvia. Karvan’s performance is particularly engaging.

Where it would be easy to shout and scream, she instead delivers her lines with a grim smile and deceptively playful cadence, capturing Stevie’s bewilderment and tightly controlled rage. It makes her growing mania, and the moments when her fury bubbles over into sudden violence, all the more impactful.

Page’s portrayal of Martin’s slow disintegration from respected family man to broken wreck (and in particular his emotional epiphanies in Act 3) is similarly gripping. Saturno is compelling as a man concerned above all with public image (but happy enough to joke about his own private infidelities), while Yazeed Daher makes a strong stage debut as the Grays’ sensitive teenage son, Billy.  

Designer Jeremy Allen’s remarkable set contributes to the production’s success. Having spent the first half of the play gazing upon all the stylish mid-century furniture, modern art and huge windows (complete with the illusion of changing natural light) that one would expect to find in the residence of a celebrated architect like Martin, it is thrilling when the first piece of fragile pottery falls from Stevie’s hands to the polished floor. 

Read: Theatre review: Seven Sisters, Perth Festival

The Goat may be shocking, but shock is not the end goal here. It asks us what we would do when faced with the truly unthinkable and demands that we examine the foundations of our own sense of morality. 

Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?
State Theatre Company South Australia
Adelaide Festival Centre
Director: Mitchell Butel
Assistant Director: James Watson

Dramaturg: Abby Hampton
Set designer: Jeremy Allen
Costume designer: Ailsa Paterson
Lighting designer: Nigel Levings
Composer and sound designer: Andrew Howard
Specialist prop maker: Elias Ppiros
Cast: Claudia Karvan, Nathan Page, Mark Saturno, Yazeed Daher

The Goat will be performed until 25 February 2023.

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.