THEATRE / A hostage to good taste: Paul Taylor on My Goat at the Cockpit Theatre

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Michele Celeste's My Goat begins with a piece of false-footing. You can hear the bleats of the eponymous creature issuing from a back room in a bombed-out block of flats. Then an angry Arab woman stalks in and thrashes the life out of it. Or so you suppose. But when her victim is hauled into view, it turns out to be a cowed, filthy man in his early thirties, who's been chained to the ceiling.

We're in Beirut, circa 1982, where 'without a hostage, you're nothing'. A rival faction has kidnapped the husband of the woman, Shazah (Anna Savva). So, as a bargaining chip, she's acquired Carlos (Jonathan Arun) from a group who assured her he was American. But his value on the hostage stock exchange is a disappointment: a Spanish-born German national, he's disclaimed by both countries. If your morale can sink lower after one-and-a-half years as a hostage, seeing a goat get preferential treatment over you would certainly do nothing to prevent it.

The publicity for Burt Ceasar's likeable production describes the two-handed drama as 'a comic love story of a hostage, his captor and her goat', which sounds, and is, a recipe for some uneasy lurches of tone. At times, you feel you're watching some rather tasteless sitcom, a sort of Allah, Allah]. When, for example, Shazah mutilates the sleeping hostage, intending to send proof of his existence to the woman who has her husband, his chopped-off digit shoots into the back room and is eaten, you've guessed it, by the goat. More Lucille Ball than Lorena Bobbitt as played here.

Mr Arun defiantly acts Carlos with a strong Ulster accent, which, as well as giving a fine edge to the character's flights of sarcasm, spares us the embarrassment of a stage Spaniard routine. He and Savva have their work cut out, though, trying to give human roundedness to a pair of characters who are little more than functional. Nor has Celeste allowed the plot to hinge on any emotional or spiritual effects of their enforced intimacy. Instead, the relationship progresses and reverses in accordance with how near the woman appears to be to getting her husband back. You can understand her obsession, but it does result in the dramatic drawback of a situation that, right up to the end, is at the mercy of external accident.

What we hear of the Beirut stock exchange in hostages has a bracing black humour and you can imagine a whole farce on the subject, but Celeste's attempts to show the pity of being implicated in such an ethos (for both captor and hostage) grate with his attempts to bring out the comedy of it. As previous efforts have demonstrated, the hostage situation, which seems ready-made for drama, is in fact very difficult to dramatise responsibly.

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