By Edward Albee
“Who is Sylvia, what is she…? So starts the Shakespearean song from which Albee’s title derives. Since the QTC production is now in the third week of its run there can be few theatre-goers in Brisbane who haven’t yet learned who, and indeed what Sylvia is. (And if you are one of the handful who hasn’t, the rest of the title gives you a BIG clue.) More than 40 years after shocking audiences by the savagery of The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee, now in his seventies, is still writing plays that challenge and confront us both by their subject matter and by the ferocity with which his characters tear themselves and each other apart. Like the classical Greek tragedies with which they are often compared, many of Albee’s plays deal with the dark and shameful desires that threaten the norms of society and destroy their protagonists.
In this play Albee’s main characters, like their classical counterparts, are tall poppies just asking to be cut down. Martin is 50, a highly successful architect who has recently won a prestigious award for his work. He shares his elegant home with Stevie, his wife, who is beautiful, smart and loving. Theirs is seemingly an ideal marriage that has withstood the test of time. From the opening scene, however, there are signs of cracks in the façade of their lives. Martin worries that he may be losing his mind; the couple’s jokes about infidelity have an edge to them; despite their liberal convictions, they are clearly thrown by their 17-year-old son’s recognition that he is gay.
When the troubled Martin tells his friend Ross that, notwithstanding his love for Stevie, he is having an affair, it seems the damage may be minimal. When finally he reveals, however, that the object of his affections is a goat, we have an awful certainty that Martin’s seemingly solid life will soon come crashing down around him. This is indeed what happens, and we watch, appalled, as Stevie and Martin attempt to deal with questions of what is love, how we define depravity, and the nature of betrayal. However, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, much of the play is hilariously funny. Even in the harrowing scene where Stevie relentlessly drags out from Martin the details of his obsession, we are torn between helpless laughter and dismay.
As Stevie, Carol Burns is an absolute knock-out. From the opening moment she looks and sounds superb, capturing the smart brittleness of Albee’s very literate dialogue and developing in the second half of the play into a Hilary Clinton look-alike with a lot more to worry about than a husband who leaves a few stains on a little blue dress. As we watch her struggling to understand the destruction of her marriage and the horror of her betrayal she is both painfully comic and deeply affecting. When she moves, Fury-like, to exact her revenge, we are in awe of her raw power even as we recoil from what she has done. This role gives us an opportunity to see a versatile actress at the very top of her form.
As Martin, Barry Otto dominates the stage, overwhelmed by a force he is struggling to understand and justify. For the play to succeed, Martin must persuade us that his love is genuinely felt and that all love is valid, whatever the object. Albee’s character, and Otto’s portrayal of him, is indeed most convincing, and we are forced to concede that there are, unfortunately, many unlikely things that can arouse us to love. It is, however, Martin’s attempts to romanticise his feelings (hence Sylvia’s name) and to persuade himself, like many an abuser, that these feelings are reciprocated, that mark his downfall. There is no answer to Stevie’s insistence that sexual congress with any creature in our power, whether animal or human, is rape.
Otto’s Martin shuffles and stumbles his way painfully throughout the play, earning our compassion but, by his very consistency, lessening for this reviewer the contrast that should have been evident between his privileged position at the opening of the play and his disintegration at the end. For me, a faster, crisper, smarter Martin in the opening scene would have established more convincingly the successful architect and made the shock of his revelation and consequent fall all the greater. Nevertheless, this is an impressive performance not to miss.
Robert Coleby plays the friend who hears Martin’s confession and feels it is his duty to pass on the information to Stevie, thereby precipitating the disaster. His character represents the norm that society expects, his incomprehension is that of a man for whom conformity matters. Robert Coleby hits exactly the right note in a difficult role; his presence is calm, attentive, low-key, and utterly reasonable. It is a very assured performance, unlike that of Jaydn Bowe who, as the son Billy, doesn’t quite find the right emotional note for the troubled teenager.
If this reads as a very enthusiastic review, that is because there is a lot to like. The set is superb such a delight to see the usually awkward width of the Bille Brown stage filled effectively by an elegant set with no expense spared. Subtle and effective lighting, beautiful clothes for Carol Burns, great attention to detail in props; this is a lavish production. There’s nothing an audience likes more, once in a while, than a well-made play in a well-dressed set no wonder the show is playing to full houses every night. So, if you haven’t booked your ticket yet, get on the phone now.
Directed by Jon Halpin
Playing until 30 April 2005: Mon and Tues 6:30pm, Wed-Sat 7:30pm, Wed matinee 1:00pm, Sat matinee 2:00pm
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no interval