A DANGEROUS PASTORAL
You wait months for a violently emotional taboo-smashing play by Edward Albee and two come along at once. After the bitter razor-sharp humanity of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf down the road Albee’s last play – shorter and more shocking – hits you like a second ten-ton truck. More shocked laughs, more vigorous torrents of scorn, and a bigger taboo. The biggest.
Martin (Damian Lewis) as an amiable, absent-minded, celebrated architect on his fiftieth birthday, happily married to the gorgeous light-hearted Stevie. In an interview with his old friend Ross, he says he is in love, headily and physically, outside the marriage. With a goat. Called Sylvia. Their eyes met over a fence – his wide and romantic, hers presumably yellow with that alarming Satanic vertical slit – and that was it. He keeps – and shags – her in a barn in the country.
Ross, after a moment, dismayedly believes him and writes to Stevie . Whereon, in the long central scene, the previous bantering of the pair turns into one of the most electrically charged confrontations on any London stage for years. Stevie is Sophie Okonedo, meeting each stage of Martin’s ‘explanation” of how beautiful and lyrical his new love is with terrifyingly violent , immaculately timed smashing of some item in their cool bare-brick living room. (“That was my mother’s picture!” “It still is!”). Damian Lewis is excellent, capturing Martin’s dismaying sincerity, but Okonedo’s is the performance which will be remembered for decades. She gives us the wife’s wit, horror, humiliated rage, and incomprehension streaked with all-too-vivid understanding of what this idiot she loves is doing.
It is about taboos, but also about all extremes: the moments, as Stevie says, when life throws you something so far beyond the norm that you are wandering in a terrifying darkness. There is also, given the history of racial-sexual politics and slavers listing humans like livestock, an inescapable frisson in casting a beautiful black woman in the part. The most devastating of her speeches is when she expresses how he must have gone from her bed to the barn and back, putting her on equal terms with the animal. This is a dark moment; but earlier foreshadowed in a wittier, more furious “ “I am a human being. I walk upright. I give milk only ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS..”
For indeed there are some wild alarmed laughs to be had in the tense unbroken 110 minutes. Ian Rickson directswith the same finely judged balance of unbearable tension and barkingly funny shocks he brought to Elektra at the Old Vic; appropriately since what Albee was explicitly doing was following the Greek line of tragedy – a respected hero, a fatal flaw, downfall and too-late remorse.
That is its core, but a more modern theme is simply that of the awkward overspill (mainly in males) from generous love to inappropriate sexual engagement . The edginess of this is too rarely tackled in modern shag-friendly narratives, but Albee grew up gay in a harsh 20th century when loves now accepted were treated (and indeed medicated) with a parallel horror to what we feel for Martin’s goat-love.
To hammer that awkwardness home, an extraordinary scene with his gay son Billy (a fine debut from Archie Madekwe) has father and son in an embrace which tips momentarily into a sexual kiss. Martin then defends it with an even more transgressive account of a father finding himself unwillingly stimulated by a wriggling baby on his knee. An audience which has managed to laugh through an earlier sequence, punctuated by Okonedo smashing crockery as Martin describes his fellow therapy-subjects engaged with pigs, a dog and a goose, is frankly silenced by that remark.
Thus Albee’s job is done. The messiness of the human condition, after all, is our proper study.
box office 020 7930 8800 to 24th June