“Everything is fine” is a mantra that repeatedly displays on the TV screens flanking the stage in Liwaa Yazji’s ‘Goats’ but unfortunately the same cannot be said of this inconsistent and, at times, incoherent play.
Set in a Syrian village in wartime, ‘Goats’ explores the loss of children not returning home from battle, through the lens of a propagandist government. The play is largely a battle of the lone grieving father Abu Firas pitted against the statesman Abu Al-Tayyib – one constantly questioning the other’s absolute regime. Unconvinced that his son is in the basic wooden coffin laid out before him, Abu Firas sets out to prove that Abu Al-Tayyib’s fight against “terrorists” may not be entirely truthful.
Carlos Chahine as Abu Firas delivers a powerful performance throughout, a man broken by the loss of his son and the uphill struggle to question authority, forced to renounce his claims in order to visit the morgue. Equally Souad Faress as Imm Ghasson gives so much with saying very little, particularly in her largely silent first act.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say that performances throughout were generally very good, save for a couple of the younger actors who were at times a little wooden. Not that it would have mattered as seemingly the audience were more interested in the performance of the live goats on stage. Given to families as compensation (bribe?) for their loss, the goats serve as a visual reminder of the child they have lost. Although I’m pleased to see that the production didn’t shy away from using live animals, nor were they ushered away after a few minutes in the limelight, it seems much of the audience were more interested in the performance of the goats than the humans and their words, coos and laughs out of sync with the play. But maybe that’s the point? Give them a distraction so they won’t think about the facts they’re spoon-fed or, as one character points out, why their sons only ever return dead instead of wounded.
There are some very neat visual flourishes too – the TV screens for example used throughout, at the start as a quick guide to Arabic terms, or as a live news stream for Sirine Saba’s beautifully coiffed Presenter, to a mix of CCTV for the morgue and as night vision for the young men. The Presenter’s news story interrupted by a holding message of fields and clouds and the strapline “Everything is Fine” every time the villagers don’t tow the party line.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few things that aren’t fine. In one confused scene, the four teenagers start to speak of their sons – are they mimicking what their fathers would say about them? Is this a flash to the future? Similarly, it was only when I checked in the programme that I realised Sirine Saba was playing two characters and that the Presenter was not Imm Al-Tayyib, wife of Abu Al-Tayyib. It was also unclear which characters were related to which – I thought it was obvious that Ishia Bennison’s Imm Nabil was wife to Abu Firas but their lack of relation on became clear much later.
‘Goats’ should be a vitally important play. It should force Western society to realise what oppressive regimes are doing in Syria and in similar war-torn countries. Instead the muddled production confuses and bewilders. There are a few laughs (a mobile phone ringing out at an embarrassing moment being a personal highlight) but ultimately the message is unclear, saved only slightly by a relatively slick production.