Writer: Edward Albee
Director: James Macdonald
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Venomous, cruel and alcoholic, Edward Albee’s Martha is a delicious creation and in his portrait of an academic marriage gone horribly wrong, she can easily seem a monster battering her downtrodden husband George. But Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play about illusions and while the characters present one face to the world, Albee uses the combative construct of a late-night drinks party to strip away every last vestige of propriety, leaving his four characters shattered and changed by morning.
After a welcome event for new Faculty members, biologist Nick and his wife Honey are invited to the home of historian George and President’s daughter Martha for drinks, making stilted conversation until a series of spiteful psychological sports are suggested. As the endless night rolls on, drinks flow all too freely and each marriage comes under scrutiny in a series of bitter tirades that sweeps the young newbies into George and Martha’s terrible game.
Macdonald’s crisply directed and claustrophobic production gives new meaning to the concept of a three act tragedy as each section pushes the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, forcing the audience to witness and confront the depths of each character’s hatred and despair. It often makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing, as if intruding on a private battleground, played out over three wince-inducing hours. Yet, the lengths Martha in particular is willing to go is never less than utterly compelling.
Famously portrayed on film by Elizabeth Taylor, Imelda Staunton’s turn as Martha feels very different and we see more clearly than ever that Martha’s outward ebullience – dark and twisted as it can be – as well as her retreat to seductive charms in Act Two, come from disappointment, not just in her husband’s lack of progress, but also in her own failure to live the life she expected. Her continual vacillation from self-pity to all kinds of provocation becomes extraordinarily revealing in Staunton’s experienced performance, which by the end of the play convincingly shows a woman with no illusions left.
Conleth Hill’s George is quite the revelation, a mild-mannered academic who finally snaps after years of silent suffering. Often seen as a match for Martha, Hill’s George is endlessly provoked and for the most part unable to best his wife in any of their gladiatorial battles. But the arrival of Nick, a younger rival with everything before him and a path to the kind of career and marital success George will never have, leads to all kinds of masculine posturing that ultimately snap George into action. Hill brings fresh insight to a character reaching the limits of endurance who finally acts to shift the power in his marriage.
The initially innocent guests played by Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots firmly claim their place as co-leads with plenty of secrets of their own. Nick and Honey are not mere ciphers for resolving George and Martha’s problems, but clearly have a well-defined backstory of their own. Treadaway is all charm and arrogance, but with a streak of selfishness that sees him place career progression above anything else, while Poots’ innocent housewife becomes progressively sullied by the evening’s events. The parallels between the two couples are starkly realised in this fascinating production, leaving you wondering what the future holds once the curtain comes down.
Tom Pye has created a traditional living-room set with ample soft furnishing, book shelves and various nooks, which give the actors plenty of variety for their dastardly deeds, with the academic clutter reflecting their own emotional state. Arguably, something a little more modern could add flexibility and edge in what is a long night for a stunned audience. This tense and brutal production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is genuinely shocking but impossible to turn away from.
Runs until: 27 May 2017 | Image: Johan Persson