Harold Pinter Theatre
1st April, 2017, matinee
In the last month I’ve seen for the first time three major plays from the 1960s: What the Butler Saw, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and now Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After reading so much about any ‘modern classic’ actually seeing the play means you have huge expectations. What’s staggering is how it was Albee’s first full length three act play: its language and wit alone is dazzling.
Having read Albee’s one act The American Dream, “Virginia Woolf” seems to be an extension of its ideas and characters (although I think the later A Delicate Balance is a more overt one). The American Dream has been called an anti-play, it has absurdist roots and even its mise en scène is similar to Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. Partly a satire on marriage, the dialogue is rhythmic and cyclical and it seems that Mommy and Daddy’s marriage is kept together by their squabbling. The language is perhaps not as vitriolic as some of the jibes in “Virginia Woolf” but Daddy is still demeaned and emasculated, sometimes agreeing with Mommy for argument’s sake. He is literally emasculated as well, having had his ‘tubes’ replaces with artificial ‘tracts’. Their names are defined by their status as parents yet that becomes problematic when we discover that they couldn’t get the son that they want.
The idea of the North as a haven is explored in The Death of Bessie Smith (and partly in The Zoo Story). Here, we’re in the north of the US, more specifically in a small New England college town – which may or may not be called New Carthage – a, one would think, forward thinking, liberal place, full of the young blonde-haired optimism we can see in Honey and Nick when they first enter. Instead, we get the claustrophobic, drink-fuelled lives of George and Martha. George is a struggling associate history professor unable to have lived up to his father in law’s (and head of the college) expectations, something that Martha doesn’t let him forget. As the play progresses the reality of this academic and liberal life becomes increasingly precarious. As Nick and Honey are toyed with, becoming embroiled in George and Martha's cruel 'games', we are similarly drawn into their trickery and backbiting, the rug repeatedly being pulled from under our feet. The twists are clever because they correspond so well with Albee's cyclical dialogue, after each revelation you think, hang on, I've heard this before...
The play starts with an impending sense of catastrophe with Adam Cork’s music evoking a quaking campus bell tower. Tom Pye’s heightened realist design creates Martha and George’s campus house with fascinating detail. The lodge style house, similar to Bunny Christie’s Connecticut farmhouse in Hare’s The Red Barn, is stylish and modern as are the costumes: I’m sure there was a gasp when Martha re-entered early on having changed into a shirt and trousers. The tiled hall extends to become the edge of the living room which leads down to a sunken main living area: sofa, arm chair and a coffee table strewn with papers all on a very tick shag carpet. It is a shrewd decision to have this extremely comfy-looking carpet be in a square boxing ring/ bear pit area, a suggestion of where Martha and George are most comfortable. The set is filled with curious details and I was left wondering about the actual layout of the house and why, for instance, George goes off in the opposite direction to the kitchen to get more ice?
Conleth Hill’s George is initially passive, seen crumpling in his chair, but he’s Martha’s perfect match. His dry wit is perfectly delivered, portraying his wife as an alcoholic Medusa, his razor sharpness something which she feeds off. Indeed, these games keep their marriage together, these slinging matches don’t stop them from embracing and passionately kissing. Later in the play, he becomes cold and brittle, a truth teller to Martha, snapping her out of the existence she’s been living. Imelda Staunton is captivating as Martha, monstrous, sleazy, shrill, yet still capable of evoking pity; there's a moment in act 3 when a shattered Martha lets rip an almighty wail (not dissimilar in performance, and reason for, to Zoe Wanamaker’s groan in All My Sons when realising her son is dead), Staunton was utterly raw and animalistic. The two leads are artfully supported by a nicely understated Luke Treadaway as Nick – all false modesty and quiet assurance – and Imogen Poots as his naïve country wife, Honey, who relishes in the comic cluelessness of the character, while being incredibly sympathetic at the same time.
There’s something about major London revivals of American 20th century classics which brings out the best in British theatre. The late Howard Davies’ production of Miller’s All My Sons with David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker remains one of the best things I’ve seen in a theatre and enthused my frequent theatregoing; Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic made us tense up at what was going to happen next; Benedict Andrew’s brilliantly lit and contemporary A Streetcar Named Desire, although it had its incongruities, stripped away any romanticism and nostalgia from the play; Yael Farber’s The Crucible was atmospheric (also in a literal sense from the haze) and kept the play’s allegorical power at its fore. James Macdonald’s faithful production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? elicits faultless performances and conveys well the desolation under the characters’ illusions in Albee’s masterpiece.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until 27th May.