I'm off to the Apollo Theatre to interview Jonathan Pryce and Kate Fahy, real-life partners and the actors playing the married couple in Edward Albee's hit play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?. The production is in the process of transferring from the Almeida, and its West End run opens tonight. As I hurry down Shaftesbury Avenue, news is breaking that the iconic Mr-and-Mrs act of our time is in trouble. One's first reaction is that it's encouraging to learn that David Beckham knows how to text someone. And it creates a piquant backdrop to meeting a couple who are also musing on this bombshell when I arrive.
Unlike Posh and Becks, Pryce and Fahy don't make a song and dance of their relationship. Nor have they exploited it for commercial gain, despite Pryce's reputation as an actor equally at home on stage and screen. His roles range from the Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon to Juan Peron in Evita, from the Hamlet who hawked up the guttural ghost of his father from his own innards in Richard Eyre's Royal Court production to the skinhead in the night-school class for aspiring stand-ups in Trevor Griffiths's corrosive Comedians.
Pryce and Fahy have lived together for 30 years, "happily unmarried" in his words. They met in Liverpool in the early Seventies, when he was running the Playhouse and gathering together a youthful company of extraordinary potential: Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Nicholas le Prevost, among others. If Fahy's CV is shorter than his, it is presumably the consequence of having brought up their three children.
"We don't make a habit of this," says Pryce, a taller figure than I had imagined, contained and initially slightly wary, in contrast to his partner's ready-smiling, less guarded warmth. It's an understatement, typical of his sardonic approach - and, blessed with black eyebrows that can arch like his, who could resist adopting that particular mode? The salty irony is that for their stage debut together they have chosen a piece in which an idyllically happy union - between a super-successful American architect and spouse - is destroyed because of "another woman", who also happens to be from another species. Namely, the goat of the title.
I tease them that they may become known as the Lunts of livestock-abuse (the Lunts - Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne - were America's preeminent connubial high-comedy duo in the Thirties and Forties). "People have said, 'Are you going to become the Lunts?'" smiles Pryce, "but they were asexual, weren't they?" My understanding is that they were both bisexual, but at all events, it wasn't a goat that came between that pair onstage; it was Noel Coward (not a man who ever lingered down on the farm) in his classic ménage à trois comedy, Design for Living.
"John was asked to do The Goat, read the script, and said, 'This is very, very weird, you'd be brilliant at it,'" explains Fahy, with what seems to be a twinkling acknowledgement of the faintly Irish quality of that compliment. Of Birmingham-Irish stock herself ("My father was an architectural ironmonger - I know a lot about escutcheons"), she has enviably American-looking teeth, which are no handicap in her role here. Being the common-law wife of Pryce was neither handicap nor much help in securing the part. "Edward [Albee] has quite a control in who does his plays," she explains, so it was important to go out to New York and impress him and the veteran English director, Anthony Page. Happily, she and the author hit it off and a second meeting was called. The rest is history.
Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl vividly pioneered the roles on Broadway. But there's a technical trickiness about the piece that benefits from being addressed by real-life partners. Performed without an interval, The Goat is a fairly short play that has to move from, and sometimes tack between, New York loft-sitcom to almost Racininan tragedy, as it charts the devastating effects of the husband's irrational passion on his wife Stevie and his much-loved but achingly vulnerable 17-year-old gay son.
The two leading actors have to establish very quickly the intimacy, sexual devotion and seasoned rapport between the architect and his spouse. You could say that Pryce and Fahy have had a 30-year rehearsal period. Pryce, who is clearly a man keen not to overstate things, does not want too much to be made of this: "After all, I haven't lived with Matthew Marsh [who plays his old and disappointingly bigoted buddy], and he's wonderful." But he does agree with Fahy that a long, real-life history helps with certain technical challenges - such as having to switch from furious, bloody argument to shared humour in a split second.
From Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to Prunella Scales and Timothy West, from Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert to Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray - with some married thesps, you scarcely have time to say "Richard and Judy" before they are stampeding to the stage to continue their relationship there by other means. My hunch is that the public like to see married people sparring (and worse) - remember Richard and Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew on screen and in, God help us, Private Lives, a comedy invoked in The Goat in a sequence of arch pastiche.
But what about the unholy collaboration that is the obverse side of the marital coin. Fred and Rosemary West? Or the couple who have concealed child abuse in Festen, the Almeida Theatre's concurrent hit show? Not many takers there, I'd bet.
Pryce agrees that the Almeida seems to be having a mini-season of dramas about dysfunctional families. There's another link in that - on the movie Regeneration, an adaptation of Pat Barker's First World War trilogy, the actor worked with Jonny Lee Miller, who is so brilliant in the role of the whistleblowing spectre at the feast in Festen. "Jonny has a slightly otherworldly quality. What was that advert for breakfast food? Yes, he has this Ready Brek glow around him."
Pryce rightly won awards for his sublimely funny and sad portrayal of Lytton Strachey in another film, Carrington. Looking like a bushy-bearded Edward Lear drawing that had somehow been invaded by the spirit of Quentin Crisp, the actor displayed enormous insight into what it meant for this quietly screaming queen to enter into a relationship with a woman. But what about the architect and the goat?
"The idea of bestiality is as abhorrent to me as is it is to the friend," he says. He tries not to picture, let alone "workshop", the offstage activity. "I hang on to the idea of obsession and passion." He likes to leave some things unexplored, a dream-room that keeps a sense of mystery in his roles. Besides, the play is not a tract advocating the relaxation of a taboo. It would work just as well, in terms of moral structure, if the architect were having sex with a goddess. What is vital is that the third party be of another species entirely, thus leaving the wife feeling insane with exclusion.
The couple's children, who are 21, 17 and 14, are thrilled with the show, which suggests that they have been well brought-up. The sons, says Pryce, "are glad that for once I am not inflicting a musical on them".
"This is not," adds Fahy, "a great show for a wedding anniversary." But it occurs to me that on a someone-has-it-worse-than-us principle, it may be just the ticket, at the moment, for Posh and Becks.
'The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?', Apollo Shaftesbury, London W1 (020-7494 5070) to 21 AugustReuse content