Goats, Royal Court

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by guest critic Gregory Forrest

You have goat to be kidding me: the Royal Court’s latest experiment is a tonally-confused take on the Syrian conflict, fake news, and livestock management.

The bleating heart of Liwaa Yazji’s narrative is fascinating. For every son martyred in the ongoing war, local government will provide their grieving family with a goat. Children replaced by milk-laden mammals – it is a compensation scheme of twisted proportions. Local party leader Abu al-Tayyib goes as far as to declare ‘Our vision is for every house in the nation to have its own goat.’

Publicity for this production has drowned in the simple fact that there is, indeed, a small herd of live goats onstage. Yet the play drowns as well. Six goats navigate the boards uncertainly, either tugged by strings or encouraged by scraps of food. Whether there is an underlying human metaphor in their behaviour is unclear. Those being blindly led by others; a community eating up anything it is served: both seem to be central to Goats as a
political text, yet such parallels are never explicitly drawn out.

Instead, one goat wanders a bit too far to the left and the audience giggle. Uninhibited yet predictable, they are always the most and least interesting things onstage. It’s a shame, because there is an interesting play somewhere here.

The best scene of the evening is abruptly cut short. A father in a locked room with the coffin of his son – a room he has been demanding entry to, a room he now is desperate to escape. This moment has the potential to truly rattle, and regretfully is not taken to grislier places. Still, Hamish Pirie’s direction is punctual, and works well within Rosie Elnile’s suitably gaudy design.

Particular praise is due to Tom Gibbons for his subtle and sudden sound design. Any second could be interrupted by a gunshot or a phone call or an ululation, meaning the stage space feels truly unsafe: a village in a war-torn nation. Sirine Saba also stands out in her two roles, as an onstage news presenter and Imm al-Tayyib, a stifled and angry wife in the slow act of breaking apart. The ‘truth’ (a contentious word here) about several mysterious phone calls is cleverly drip-fed to the audience, and Saba’s performance responds with appropriate bite.

But then a goat bleats. The animals are intentionally distracting; the metaphor for grief is glossed over. Just as the bright lights of our little screens can blind us to political crises, so too can an expansive play be cut down by a goat. If only that play were more precise.

Goats runs through 30 December.

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