Daniel Nelson



Image by Johan Persson

It's risky bringing live goats onto the Royal Court stage as is happening all this month because actors fear live animals will steal the show. And they do.

But that's ok, because goats are a central part of Goats.

They are the brainchild of a local Syrian apparatchik, as a reward for families whose fathers, sons or brothers have been killed in a seven-year conflict:  it's goats for martyrs, a word I have come to hate, though I can understand why people cling to such terms to block out and make sense of the senseless depravities of war.

Syrian playwright and documentary filmmaker Liwaa Yazji has said the idea came from a real situation in southern Syria, and she has also pointed to the resulting complexities: it may be humiliating to receive a goat as a handout, but a poor family may need it and may feel under pressure not to spurn a gift from an oppressive government.

The play — developed as part of the Royal Court’s long-term project with writers from Syria and Lebanon — also tackles propaganda and fake news, and the role of individuals in questioning accepted 'truths' and standing out against the crowd ("Has anyone ever told the truth? Has anyone ever demanded it? Does anyone want it? Does anyone even need it?") A powerful scene when a young man returns home from the war also vividly and uncomfortably illustrates the explosive rage of soldiers who have experienced indescribable horrors incomprehensible to civilians whose aquiescent complicity in war has paved the way for those horrors.

So, yes, it's meaty stuff, but there's also humour, drama, satire, tragedy, pathos, surrealism and, of course, goats.

Maybe there's too much, too many elements, too many characters (not all of them fully fleshed out and not all as strongly acted as the leads),but that's Syria today, a place where snipers pick off desperate besieged people making a dash for bread within stone-throwing distance of comfortable middle-class residents making their way to the gym.

I admire Yazji's ambition in getting this onto the stage, and the Royal Court's commitment to working with Syrian writers, but the play feels a bit rough around the edges.

And then there's the goats. A report in What'sOnStage quoted the Royal Court as saying, "We have committed to delivering the writer's vision by engaging a small herd of live goats for the duration of the five week run. As with all of our animal practices we have researched, collaborated with and taken advice from professional welfare bodies (RSPCA, vets, Defra), and instilled best practice to ensure the welfare of the goats is paramount throughout the process.

"We have prioritised a stress-free environment and experience for the goats. The breed and age of the goats we are using has been chosen to ensure the goats' ease and comfort within the stage environment. These are pygmy nanny goats who are comfortable being handled, and who are often engaged in public human interaction (at farm parks, childrens' parties etc). They will have had six weeks of preparation and induction, including meeting the cast and attending rehearsals and the theatre."

Director Hamish Pirie has only praise for his four-legged cast members: "Goats really really take notes. It's amazing. Once you do a scene with a goat once, then you take them off, by the seccond time - they've got it. They're professionals."

It's a pity the warring parties in Syria didn't take equal care of the people they were ostensibly representing.

* Goats is at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, SW1 until 30 December. Info: 7565 5000

+ Liwaa Yazji: 'Goats is an opportunity to offer a different view of Syria'

+ Royal Court play to feature herd of goats live onstage

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