Writer: Edward Albee
Director: Michael Emans
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
In the early hours of the morning, a middle-aged couple with a complicated relationship is joined in their apartment by a younger couple who they met at an event a few hours earlier. With all four of them partial to drink, and not particularly great at handling it, it’s fair to say that you don’t expect things to go well. Quite how badly they do go, and the deep-seated reasons for this, continue to make Edward Albee’s 1962 play, a popular choice for revivals.
The play mixes humour and laugh-out-loud moments with a deeper undercurrent of bitter, sardonic sniping, hidden and not-so-hidden resentments, both between Martha and George, the middle-aged couple played by Sara Stewart and Robin Kingsland, and Nick and Honey, played by Paul Albertson and Rose Reynolds.Martha’s father is president of the university where George is a member of the history department. That he is still only a member, rather than head of the department, is one of the main sources of Martha’s frustration with George. That his job seems to be dependent on remaining married to the president’s daughter is one of the main sources of his frustration with her. Underneath this, there is something darker and more damaging, that ties them to a toxic relationship where they are continually seeking to provoke each other to a breaking point they don’t want to reach.
While Nick and Honey are younger and appear to have a stronger relationship, there are also dark clouds hanging over them, stemming from the phantom pregnancy that prompted their marriage. Entering into Martha and George’s battleground is not a good idea, as the older couple use them as weapons in their fight with no regard for the damage they may be causing.
Rapture’s production draws out the comedy in the bitchy exchanges between the main couple, and in the descent into drunkenness of all four characters. It also explores the darker side of the relationships and of George’s own private hell. The one to ones between George and Nick in act 1 and the start of act 2 are particularly effective, with Kingsland capturing the disappointment, powerlessness, and spite that make up George as he draws Nick into his world view and starts to pull apart the younger man’s certainties. The final moments of the play, where the issue at the heart of George and Martha’s relationship emerges and the point scoring between them becomes more tragic than amusing, is a chilling end to a long production.
Where the production suffers is that the comedy is at times overplayed at the expense of really bringing out the tortured relationships that lie behind the words. The opening of the first act, before Nick and Honey’s arrival, comes across as a scene from an American sitcom about a bickering couple, with neither actor getting below the surface of their character. As George’s drunkenness increases, rather than bringing out the sadness in his life, it drowns it out, and the menace disappears.
Also, as Martha, Stewart’s reactions to George move between tolerance and hostility, and the sense of her disappointment with the reality of what her marriage has become as opposed to what it could have been, doesn’t fully come across. Her character is neither as nuanced or as well-rounded as it could have been.
The strength of the script and individual moments still make this a production worth seeing, but, played too much for laughs, the history of the relationship only comes across in moments, and isn’t always underpinning the lighter scenes.
Runs until 3 June 2017| Image: Richard Campbell