DramaReviewSouth West

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Reviewer: Katie Ashmore-Marsh

Writer: Edward Albee

Director: David Mercatali

“What a dump!” is the cold welcome to Edward Albee’s ‘evening of fun and games with George and Martha’. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Carries on as abruptly as it starts in its brutal perspective upon human relationships. Director David Mercatali states that this scrutiny is what drew him to the play. His direction is primarily concerned with, as assistant director Jay Crutchley puts it, ‘the psychology of Albee’s characters and the games they play with each other, subconsciously and… consciously’. This psychological fascination is especially evident with Mark Meadows and Pooky Quesnel (playing George and Martha respectively); their chemistry, interaction and depth of character are a testament to this.

The play begins in media res, with George and Martha stumbling home from a party at their small New England college where George teaches history. We learn new biology faculty member Nick and his wife Honey (played by Joseph Tweedale and Francesca Henry) are due to join. In the booze-soaked chaos that ensues, we delve deep into George and Martha’s relationship and its secrets. Nick and Honey act as a catalyst to the shocking conclusion and unearth some of their own demons.

The theatre is convincingly transported by Anisha Field’s to “the living room of a house on the campus of a small New England college” in the 1960s. There’s a sizeable circle in the middle of the room, frequently used by characters to size each other up; the boxing match mentioned between George and Martha consistently evoked as their mental and physical games become interchangeable. Mercatali says he wants the in the round staging which leaves the audience in an intimate position, to evoke an ‘arena’. This is successfully done, and by the conclusion, we feel like unwelcome voyeurs to violence. As a nice touch, the lights increase when Nick and Honey enter and remain (as far as I can tell) until they leave, perhaps showing the couple shine metaphorical light on George and Martha’s relationship. Generally, this staging works well with at least one character in eye line at all angles, but the conclusion was a notable exception. George stands behind Martha whilst both look towards the door, but decide not to walk out of it: here, a portion of the audience are only able to see their backs. 

George and Martha provide standout performances from Quesnel and Meadows. They have excellent chemistry which displays the relationship’s co-dependence. Meadows’ George is convincingly sinister, whilst Quesnel is the first Martha I have seen who manages to build her character to a crescendo whilst starting with high energy. The interpretation of George as the controlling partner is something I had not seen so explicitly before and the result is powerful.

Honey and Nick in Henry and Tweedale are effective counterpoints. Henry plays a convincing and surprisingly funny Honey, with great sense of comic timing. Tweedale is good as a young man out of his depth in George and Martha’s games, coming across as a little boy in his mannerisms even as he tries to square up to George. But this means that the plays Cold War politics are less apparent; George is often seen to symbolise America and Nick the threat of the Soviet Union. But here, when George argues that he “will not give up Berlin”, it is hard to believe that Nick would do anything other than hand it over. This is no major criticism; the production’s exploration of power dynamics more than makes up for this.

This production is thoroughly enjoyable and showcases some excellent acting. I would advise you to join the fun and games.

Runs until 28 February 2020 | Image: Mark Dawson

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Gladiator, but make it 60’s

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