Thursday, 16 March 2017

Theatre review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This year's big-name West End casting is getting into its stride now, and after her all-conquering Gypsy Imelda Staunton is one of the biggest; although, having long been a stage stalwart the amount of seasons Conleth Hill has managed to survive in Game of Thrones must have made him a draw to much of the audience as well. Add Luke Treadaway and you've got a high-powered cast for James Macdonald's revival of a 20th century American classic. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the archetypal story of a toxic marriage imploding but, as slowly becomes apparent over one very long night, the situation is even more twisted than it initially appears. George (Hill) is a History lecturer at a small East Coast university, and as his wife Martha (Staunton) is the daughter of the all-powerful college president, it might be expected that he'd have easily advanced in his career.

But a lack of ability and/or ambition means he's never actually progressed, and Martha misses no opportunity to call him a failure for not managing to despite his advantages.

It's just one source of the friction that makes all their interactions range from the hissingly passive-aggressive to the simply aggressive-aggressive, and despite being in the privacy of their home they have an audience: They've returned from a faculty party to welcome the term's new lecturers, and despite it being 2 on a Sunday morning Martha has invited the young biologist Nick (Treadaway) and his timid wife Honey (Imogen Poots) back for more drinks.

There's a story, possibly apocryphal, about a production of Abigail's Party that tried to match the characters drink-for-drink in a rehearsal, with the whole cast ending up unconscious within a couple of scenes. I imagine that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have everyone needing their stomachs pumped by the end of Act I, as the already-tipsy characters go on to drain George's drinks trolley until dawn, with only the fragile Honey ending up sick from it. One of the many wider themes Albee brings into his domestic tragedy is Americans having a particularly unhealthy relationship with alcohol, something he attributes to the legacy of prohibition, something the play's older couple can still remember.

Its other big theme of truth versus illusion is played much closer to home, as the play is structured around both couples making confessional speeches about their pasts, which the hosts increasingly refer to as games. It becomes apparent that not only is the whole thing a game to George and Martha, but the guests are at the significant disadvantage of not knowing the rules. Not all of their confessions are necessarily true, but the older couple use them to get under the younger couple's skins. It's clearly not the first time they've had guests like this and, despite a game-changing event near the end of the play, it probably won't be the last, and Albee's ultimate cynical twist may be that George and Martha stay together because despite their love turning to hate they're still perfect for each other: They take a perverted glee not only in their own marriage's self-destruction, but in sowing the seeds for a newer and seemingly happier relationship to sink into the same kind of misery as their own. Tom Pye's set is slightly reminiscent of a wrestling ring but George and Martha aren't necessarily there just to fight each other, they also have some skill as a tag team.

I haven't seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before and while it lives up to its reputation as a powerful play, Macdonald's production is also a lot funnier than I'd been led to expect. It does build to something quite devastating but much of it is very dark comedy, Hill setting the tone for this with George's flippant, impatient asides to anything Martha has to say. Staunton is more of an explosive presence on the stage, while Treadaway's Nick is something of a game-player himself, just not aware of how much more complicated the game is than he thought. With these three Olivier winners on stage fireworks are to be expected and they deliver, while as the lesser-known quantity to me Poots impressively holds her own with them, sweetly comic at times but her front painfully breaking down when it's chipped away at*. It's a long play so it could have done with ATG adopting a 7pm start time to stop the audience's experience becoming too close to the characters' all-nighter†, but otherwise this is another example of Staunton's track record of choosing star vehicles that really deliver.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee is booking until the 27th of May at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including one interval and one 5-minute pause.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

*this could be a breakthrough year for Poots; with Trump in the White House 2017 is obviously a year of success for people whose surnames sound like a fart euphemism

†the theatre chain are also showing a bit of a double standard in a production that's received publicity for Staunton's request that the audience not eat during the show, and of course there's the usual request to turn phones off; but the seats have menus left on them for their service that lets people use a phone app to order food delivered to their seats. With mixed messages like that it's no wonder if new audiences aren't sure how to behave.

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