The saying ‘never work with children or animals’ has sound reasoning; they are unpredictable, don’t learn lines and have high potential for unrehearsed defecation. Though the goats in Goats were remarkably continent, their predilection for escape and constant eating manifests as a bizarre chaotic element (albeit adorable one) in Liwaa Yazji’s play examining the cost of propaganda in Syria’s civil war. In a small village, the local ruling party wishes to recognise the loss of those whose husbands, sons and fathers never came back. For every martyrdom, they compensate the family with a goat.
Family is what you make it.
Family can be a goat.
Wooden boxes containing the slain sons of the village are brought into the town square. They are adorned with gaudy flowers and badly photo-shopped photographs of the soldiers as angels against impossible blue skies. The leader of the party (Amer Hlehel) praises the “martyrs”, inviting celebration for their sacrifice. Around him, Rosie Elnile’s set, bathed in an absurd millennial pink, is scattered with screens pulsating between the local news network and fields of flowers stating ‘everything is fine’.
Fake news permeates the whole production like hyperchromatic cloud infecting everyone who breathes it. Isabella Nefar’s Zahra’s ululations waver between uncontained grief and pride in her brother-in-law’s noble death. Fathers boast of their son’s bravery: “He called me from the front line to tell me he’d captured terrorists! He tore them limb from limb!” Sirine Saba’s vividly vacuous presenter thrusts her prewritten script under the noses of grieving mothers. “But how do you feel?” she purrs, indicating the correct answer just out of camera shot.
The truth is subject to how you frame it.
The truth can be a goat.
A goat on stage is a goat. They don’t have the sophisticated sense of being required to play another goat, or Richard III*. As local history teacher Abu Firas (Carlos Chahine) tears his world and himself apart trying to find out what happened to his son, practically the only thing you can be sure of is that a goat is a goat. The animals constantly interrupt, their undeniable realness disturbing the tissue of lies the villagers’ reality is built on. Abu Firas’s heart-to-hearts with the silent Imm Ghassan, played by Souad Faress with stately dignity, are poignant not only in their desperation but in their seeming futility. How can one man wanting to see the body of his son compete with the totality of a regime? How can he reason with a system that replaced his child with a goat?
Barbaric depends on who you are calling barbarians.
Barbarism can be a goat.
We judge a society by how it treats its children and its animals, and here the children are being killed in their thousands. Ali Barouti, in his professional debut, becomes the teenage Jude so utterly that his challenging of his friend to “fuck the goat” elicited both polite Royal Court audience titters and some concerned glances towards our farmyard pal. As they lead the unlucky nanny out of sight towards her unromantic fate, the sick feeling that accompanied the soldier Adnan’s (Khalid Laith) brutal recollection of war-sanctioned violence returns in force. The causal treatment of life is nefarious, the enemy dependant on where you are standing.
Grief in war takes on an absurd flavour.
Grief can be a goat.
Goats is a quite an odd play, at times hard to follow, with a plot that is secondary to its metaphors. It is a strange experience to have the fourth wall of such a hard-hitting setting constantly broken by bleating and clip-clopping elucidating a tentative ‘ahhhhhhh’ from the audience. At times Yazji’s story feels like it is better suited to a novel than a script: the many villager parts the cast have to cover are confusing and it is frequently unclear whether the young men are playing fathers or sons. Performances across the board (excluding quadrupeds) are inconsistent and a paucity of backstory blocks us from fully empathising with characters we only glimpse.
The world of the goats and the characters is also never fully integrated. Most interaction between man and goat appears as animal-handling 101 rather than dramaturgical device. Yet the surreal staging and animal casting are a darkly humorous lens through which to examine the messy, multi-sided, multistoried conflict that is the Syrian Civil War. A war that has been raging for over 6 years and, by conservative UN estimates, has killed over 90,000 people.
That’s a hell of a lot of goats.
*Unlike sheep who, as we saw in Missouri Williams’s King Lear with Sheep in 2015, have a quite a surprisingly complex range.
Goats is at the Royal Court until December 30th. For more details, click here.