The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

Written by by Edward Albee

Australian Premiere 2003
by Melbourne Theatre Company

Publicity picture for the play

Triple Olivier Award-winner Philip Quast returns from London to star with AFI Award-winner Wendy Hughes in the Australian Premiere of Edward Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia?, directed by MTC Associate Director Kate Cherry.

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? concerns an architect who - in the same week that he's received an international prize, been awarded a lucrative contract, and celebrated his 50th birthday - is forced to confess to his wife and son that he's involved in a relationship that will probably destroy his marriage, his career, and his life.

Peter Curtin (Summer of the Seventeenth Doll) also features in the cast. The creative team includes Richard Roberts (set and costume design), Rory Dempster (lighting) and Paul Grabowsky (music).

The Goat or Who is Sylvia? contains adult themes, sexual references and strong language.

Exploring the mystery of sexuality

The Age February 21 2003, review by Helen Thomson

By Edward Albee, directed by Kate Cherry.
Fairfax Theatre until March 29.

With The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Edward Albee has certainly made good his promise to stir up theatre-goers.

The play crosses boundaries of all kinds and raises issues that are so remote from our everyday experiences, we don't even talk about them. If you thought there was nothing left to reveal about sex, then perhaps you haven't given bestiality enough consideration.

It's something that might lead to an off-colour joke or two, but Albee takes it much further. This is not a story about rural farmhands up to no good in the barn. It is about a leading 50-year-old New York architect who suddenly, inexplicably, falls in love with a goat.

He calls her Sylvia, and the brief reference to a passage from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona - "Who is Sylvia? What is she, That all our swains commend her?" - only adds an ironic edge to a situation as tragic as it is absurd.

Albee has dealt with the absurd before, most recently in The Play About the Baby, performed in Melbourne by Red Stitch Actors Theatre last November. This is a black, tragi-comic play that makes us laugh, then pulls the rug from under our feet with the theft of a baby who may - or may not - be real. Sylvia also tests our sense of probability. Like Stevie (Wendy Hughes), wife of the goat-loving Martin (Philip Quast), incredulity is one of our first reactions.

The play begins by setting up what appears to be a classic marital comedy. The fact that infidelity seems to be a recurring subject of conversation suggests that this will also have a familiar plot of sexual betrayal. It certainly does, and incorporates, in a devastating conclusion, a classic act of revenge.

The reactions of two others are important; Ross (Peter Curtin) an old friend of Martin's, and Billy (Simon Corfield), Martin and Stevie's vulnerable 17- year-old son, struggling to understand his apparent homosexuality.

But it is the titanic struggle between man and wife that is at the heart of the play, and this has an intensity at least equal to what Albee created in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In both cases, it is the strength of the love between the couples that fuels the rage.

Wendy Hughes is simply magnificent. The range of emotions she expresses, and arouses, is huge, from an alienated distaste to a rage that is positively incandescent. She instantly understands, as Martin does not, that he has broken something that cannot be mended. As she gradually reduces their clean, smart apartment to rubble, this point is graphically demonstrated.

Philip Quast is equally impressive as Martin. His is the more difficult role, for obvious reasons. And Albee does not make the mistake of suggesting that what has happened to this character is in any way explicable. So Martin cannot really account for himself or the powerful emotions that have swept him into unknown territory. The mystery at the heart of this play remains just that.

In a key scene between father and son, Albee does suggest that sexual impulse can come from inappropriate sources, but that it should be understood as just that, not as a permanent affliction. Simon Corfield gives a wonderfully touching performance as Billy, a child-man suddenly crossing a minefield, unsure of his own sexuality and facing the collapse of the family unit that anchors him to certainty.

Peter Curtin gives a suitably reined-in performance as the "everyman" friend, whose reaction can give the measure of what the rest of the world might do if Martin's story became public.

Albee actually enters the contentious Peter Singer territory of extending animal rights to the sexual realm in this play, although it is never argued in these terms. It is sexuality itself that is the mystery, although what makes Sylvia so confronting is the involvement of emotion - Martin's claim to be in love.

Director Kate Cherry demonstrates her mastery of contemporary American drama in this production in which an economy of dramatic gesture keeps the almost-unspeakable in tight control.


Stage Left, Melbourne's Online Theatre Magazine, 22 February 2003
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Edward Albee is not a playwright for the faint-hearted. He draws his material from way, way out on the fringe and approaches it from unexpected and disturbing angles. His recent The Play About the Baby was a prime example.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see beyond Albee's confronting imagery to the underlying theme. And it doesn't come much more confronting than The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

Martin (Philip Quast) is a successful architect, happily married. Then his perfect life shatters when he confides to his best friend Ross (Peter Curtin) that he is having an affair. With a goat.

It's funny, shocking, disturbing, sad and tragic by turns. And also very literate and entertaining, Albee's trademark obsession with language shining through. Witness the playful word games indulged in by all members of the family, even in the midst of terrible rage and the destruction of their lives.

The Goat boasts a superb cast. Wendy Hughes is magnificent as Martin's wife Stevie. And surely only an actor of Quast's calibre could carry off the disturbing yet very sympathetic role of the goat-lover, Martin. Simon Corfield ably supports them as their emotionally vulnerable son Billy, and Curtin as their "best friend" Ross.

It is not a play about bestiality, although this is the kick Albee has used to lay open his story. Instead, The Goat looks at how we treat those who act outside the norm.

He has used an extreme example; but Ross' choice to punish rather than help his friend is a demonstration of the self-righteousness, judgementalism and hypocrisy of society towards anyone who is "different".

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? isn't an easy play to approach. It needs an open mind and a willingness to go where it takes you. But it is intelligent, involving and entirely worth the effort.


Expect some gruff responses to this shaggy goat story
Interview by Shaunagh O'Connor, Herald Sun 19 February 2003

For a pair who have only just met, Wendy Hughes and Philip Quast are amazingly lovey dovey. The actors have admired each other from afar, but the latest Melbourne Theatre Company production is the first time they have worked together, both arriving from Sydney to star in The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

"I changed my flight so I could sit next to her,'' Quast says.

Their rapport can only help when it comes to playing a married couple in strife in Edward Albee's new play. Hughes says she was drawn to the play in the time it took to read the script. "Once I discovered what's happening, my mouth just fell open,'' she says. "It's different. Then I couldn't stop reading it because it's so powerful, the characterisations are well drawn, and I just couldn't wait to smash all that furniture.''

Overturning tables and crashing objets d'art is all part of her character's reaction after discovering her until-now faithful husband has been having an affair with a, um, goat. Playwright Albee, of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'? fame, adds Martin's confused, gay, teenage son Billy to the mix.

"This is the first production outside Broadway, which makes it very attractive, "Quast says. "It's been very successful there. It's wonderfully controversial in a way that's not sensationalist, in a way that makes the audience think and confronts them.''

Last year's Tony Award winner for best play, The Goat was first performed in New York by Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl. "The story goes that Albee wrote it at the time of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky thing and it was partially a response to that, "Quast says. "And the more we get in to it, we think how did that connect? But it's probably that people were more worked up about a blow job than they were about killing 170,000 in Iraq, and the questions of: What is truth, what is important?''

Quast and Hughes say they expect walkouts from shocked audience members during the show, which examines a man's obsession with a goat, sexual taboos, and a wife's reaction to her husband's news. "The play's about what is shocking and how much people will accept,'' Hughes says. "And reading an interview that Albee did, he was saying he finds the theatre now very safe and not confronting, and he wanted to write something that was definitely going to be controversial and shock people. He was sick of safe theatre.''

London-based Quast comes to the play after a career spanning everything from a role on The Young Doctors to performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "My career's been a hotchpotch, and I think Wendy and I have the same philosophy on hotchpotches,'' the actor says. "A bit of this and a bit of that. Not necessarily doing this because it will lead to that, but doing this because it's good for you or, 'I feel like doing that'."

Hughes' career, too, has crossed TV, theatre and film, including her fair share of period pieces, such as 'Careful He May Hear You', 'Power Without Glory', 'My Brilliant Career' and 'An Indecent Obsession'.


Review by Martin Ball, The Australian 21 February 2003

AMERICAN playwright Edward Albee has made a habit of beginning his plays with a seemingly bright and happy couple, whom he then proceeds to destroy piece by piece with Sophoclean wrath and fury. In 'The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?', we meet the successful architect Martin (Philip Quast) and his wife Stevie (Wendy Hughes). Martin has just turned 50, is showered with prizes and has a major new contract. So who is Sylvia? Well, she's the goat, of course, with which (or with whom) Martin has fallen in love and is having a sexual relationship.

Martin's old friend Ross (Peter Curtin) reacts by expressing moral outrage and disgust. Stevie exorcises her dismay by smashing pots and furniture as each detail of the relationship is revealed, finally leaving the house. Only Martin's 16-year-old gay son Billy (Simon Corfield) is able, eventually, to express some emotional bond with his father, though even this is problematic.

Albee's play is ultimately not about bestiality. There is no philosophical debate of the sort in which Peter Singer might engage, about the needs and rights of each party. Rather, Martin's behaviour is mobilised as something beyond the pale, an act for which there is neither understanding nor forgiveness. Like the shards of pottery that cannot be mended, the zoophilia is a metaphor for the gulf of incomprehension between people.

Quast gives a sustained and thoughtful performance as Martin, presenting him as a complex but rational man, desperately seeking a sympathetic audience with whom he can discuss his strange situation. Hughes is mostly in overdrive as the aggrieved wife Stevie. She's fine at the indignation, but her character lacks variation. Richard Roberts's set is exquisite, a beautiful modern house complete with courtyard garden that fits on the Fairfax stage and still leaves room for a Greek wedding's worth of broken pots and glass.

Kate Cherry's production is still a little uneven in rhythm; the first scene is all out of sorts, and the long interplay between Martin and Stevie tends to drag. Albee's play ends as Stevie returns to the house dragging the bloodied carcass of Sylvia, whom she has tracked down in order literally to "kill the beast''. It's a neat ending but wants a second act where the really hard questions are answered, not just asked.


Sunday Herald Sun 23 February 2003, review by Catherine Lambert

This may be one of the most shocking, controversial plays shown by the Melbourne Theatre Company. Which makes its humour and success all the more surprising. Under Kate Cherry's direction, it does not pretend to be anything other than shocking: its chief subject matter is bestiality. However, with a brilliant cast and fine writing by renowned US playwright Edward Albee, Cherry finds a sense of pathos and truth that is powerful and challenging.

The scenario of a successful professional couple being rocked by infidelity and a mid-life crisis is taken a few grotesque steps further by Albee. The infidelity is so unimaginable and horrific that it is sometimes humourous, often perplexing and always tragic.

A rich New York architect, Martin (Philip Quast), has a happy and loyal marriage and family and he has just won a prestigious international prize. But he is unsettled, finally revealing to his best friend that he is having an affair with Sylvia. When Sylvia's identity is revealed, Martin's family is "brought down'' to a level that is foreign to them and terrifying.

The play explores issues of betrayal between husband and wife, father and son and best friends, raising very pointed questions about relationships and their extreme fragility. There are times when performances turn into stylised hysteria, which is uncomfortable but hardly surprising given the confronting subject.

Performances by Philip Quast, Wendy Hughes and Simon Corfield are raw and generous. Hughes is at her best when she is teetering on a precipice between anger and shame and Corfield is a stunning newcomer as the couple's son, Billy. It is all held together in a masterful performance by Quast, whose complex portrayal of Martin gives the play the integrity it needs to become something more than simply shocking.


Review by Chris Boyd, Herald Sun 21 February 2003

Best known for his 1962 play 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', Edward Albee is an acknowledged master of the guilty secret. In his first one-acter, Zoo Story, a shabby young man admits he learned how to live by being cruel to a dog. This latest play from Albee, now in his mid 70s, is a zoo story of a very different kind. No cruelty, as such. Well, only to audiences, not animals. If you're at all squeamish, or don't want the plot spoiled, skip the next paragraph.

The happily married Martin (Philip Quast) has fallen in love with - and begun a sexual relationship with - a goat. It's coincidence, of course, that his son is named Billy, because this is not a comedy. Well, it's not played as a comedy. The opening scene is a superbly rendered slice of midlife marriage in which Martin and his wife Stevie (Wendy Hughes) are utterly familiar to one another. Still loving and gentle. But there are clouds gathering. It seems the fabulously successful architect is losing his wits. Perhaps to Alzheimer's disease.

The big revelation comes at the end of the first scene, when Martin 'fesses up' to his best friend, Ross (Peter Curtin). The rest of the play is one hysterical confrontation after another. While all those around him - perhaps understandably - lose connection with the truth of their roles, Philip Quast manages to play perfectly straight. He is torn between two lovers. It is a mighty performance.

Just as Albee's play systematically smashes conventions of morality, director Kate Cherry neatly draws the connection between our most precious relationships and pottery bowls. Once shattered, they can never be restored. The one truly disturbing thing about this sicko play (don't say I didn't warn you that 'The Goat' makes Bad Boy Bubby look tasteful!) is that none of Albee's characters considers that Martin might have lost the plot. Which makes us question the playwright's motives. Albee makes deft swipes at male hypocrisy - anything goes as long as you're not caught - but he is playing with us. He is experimenting on us.

We would like to thank Ben, Maria, Tina and Kathy for taking the time to provide and send the details of all the interviews and reviews to us.



© Kate McCullugh & Angela Pollard 2002. No portion of this page may be copied without permission of the author.