The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, Almeida, London

Almeida, London

Tragedy, we are often told, is dead: an impossibility in an age that believes all problems are socially remediable. But Edward Albee has boldly defied convention by writing an Oedipus Rex for the affluent society that, despite the inferiority of Anthony Page's production to the Broadway original, leaves one emotionally shattered.

In true Aristotelian fashion, Albee presents us with a hero at the height of his powers. Martin is a world-famous, 50-year-old architect chosen to design a 27 billion-dollar dream city in the American midwest. He is even, as the play starts, about to be interviewed by his old friend, Ross, for a TV programme called People Who Matter. There is only one problem: Martin reveals to Ross that he is helplessly, obsessively and physically in love with a goat called Sylvia.

Albee insists, rightly, that bestiality is the occasion rather than the subject of his play: he is not simply smashing old taboos or writing a hippy, dippy hymn to animal-oriented sex like Rochelle Owens in her 1965 play, Futz. Instead he is asking, provocatively, whether love has proscribed boundaries and, if so, who sets them. More immediately he is showing the tragic downfall of a divided individual and the destruction of his marriage to the understandably uncomprehending Stevie.

Admittedly Albee raises big questions which he can't answer in the compass of a 90-minute play. As in all his best work from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf onwards, Albee implies there is a malaise affecting American society; but he never exactly defines the source of the unhappiness motivating Martin and the fellow-sufferers he meets at a therapy session. If bestiality is also a metaphor for other forms of socially condemned sex, such as incest or paedophilia, Albee never pursues the important question aired by Ross: isn't it the lack of consensuality that raises our moral hackles?

But what Albee communicates powerfully is Martin's mix of incommunicable passion and verbal pedantry. He is in a world where there are no rules and where he is tormented by a love of "an unimaginable kind." At the same time, like all Albee's characters, he has a grammarian's obsession with language. He is deeply pained when Ross scathingly refers to the goat "who you're fucking". "Don't say that," he fervently replies. "It's whom." It gets a laugh while reminding us that Martin is thrashing around in a moral no-man's-land.

Jonathan Pryce superbly conveys Martin's frenetic isolation. From the start he seems like a man in a nightmare. His long, stick-insect fingers are forever caressing his body or describing neurotic patterns in the air. His eyes have a hunted look. Even his verbal nit-picking seems like a defence against unhappiness. But, astonishingly, Pryce enlists our sympathy when he describes his tendresse for Sylvia. And he even acquires a genuine moral rage when Martin asks, after Ross has recoiled in disgust at the idea of parental sexual arousal, "Is there anything anyone doesn't get off on, whether we admit it or not?"

If Page's production, as a whole, is less effective than the Broadway prototype, it is because it seems curiously deracinated. In New York you could almost smell the Park Avenue affluence of Martin and Stevie's world which made its destruction all the more poignant. Here everyone is drably costumed and even Hildegard Bechtler's split-level set, for all its chic Afro-art, seems oddly sterile. Kate Fahy's Stevie also comes across as a shrill scold rather than a woman whose genuine love for her husband has been savagely overturned.

Matthew Marsh as the bluntly disbelieving best friend and Eddie Redmayne as Martin's gay, emotionally fraught son are more in tune with Albee's rhythms. And by the end one is emotionally drained. It is partly because Albee follows an ancient rule of tragedy defined by Boethius as "a story of prosperity that endeth in wretchedness". But it is also because Albee has shocked us out of our familiar complacency. He has shown that passion is something that can neither be controlled, ordained or directed to socially acceptable ends. But he has also demonstrated that the victim of a condemned passion is like a traveller in a foreign country who cannot speak the language. And what I shall long remember from this production is Pryce's pain and bewilderment as he tries to express the tragically inexpressible.

· Until March 13. Box office: 020 7359 4404

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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