Celebrity Deathmatch: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pits Lord Varys against Dolores Umbridge
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is Edward Albee’s 1962 chamber piece about a quarrelling middle aged couple gained notoriety with the casting of tumultuous middle aged couple Burton and Taylor. A realist step too far. Having seen the film adaptation, I approached this new adaptation with some trepidation. For a play where not very much happens, it is long. With an interval between Act 1 & 2 and a ‘short pause’ between Act 2 & 3 it is worlds apart from the nice, 80 min, no-interval plays that are de rigour these days. I can hold my bladder for more than 80 mins, but as soon as that usher mentions ‘No Interval, No readmittance’.. my heart and pelvic floor drop. So the idea of a play with not one, but two toilets opportunities is more than welcome.
The casting is also on point. Imelda Staunton is probably the most revered grande dames lording over British theatre. For an actress who became so acclaimed in film and television to still work so prolifically in theatre is refreshing, as opposed to a statement role to prove they haven’t forgotten their roots. I am rather a staunch fangirl for Staunton. Having seen her in Gypsy but sadly missing her Sweeney Todd, both at Chichester Festival Theatre, I relished the chance to catch her in a straight drama before her return to Sondheim adaptations with Follies (!) at the NT later in 2017. Conleth Hill too is an exciting prospect. He certainly knows how to deliver a withering put down. Arguably, his banter with Tyrion in Game of Thrones is one of the highlights of that HBO behemoth. Curious Incident’s Luke Treadaway and goto for British kooky Imogen Poots complete the cast.
Taking our seats in the compact Harold Pinter theatre, we were barked at to switch off our mobile phones. There was a lot of barking, it was a bit patronising to say the least. As the play begins, we are in a spacious, mid century American lounge. Designer Tom Pye has done a stellar job recreating the period setting. With the current ubiquitous interior design trend for all things 70s, the props looked like they’d come from a John Lewis catalogue. Spacious as the room is, it would prove to be an intimate pressure pot.
I hadn’t seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before this production. I was aware of it, but the Burton-Taylor film and the casting of a real-life bickering couple had really overshadowed what is a masterpiece of a play. George and Martha are a new-England couple: George (Conleth Hill), the underachieving college professor; Martha (Imelda Staunton) the daughter of the college’s Director. George and Martha return drunk from a party and we quickly learn they have more guests to arrive. At the beginning, the warring couple spew bitchy line after bitchy line to comedic effect. Its like a particularly heated episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.. and the library is definitely open. As the play progresses, what started as funny becomes painful. Their guests, Nick and Honey, are the targets they turn their attention to. It seems like a well rehearsed piece, with Martha making her advances on the younger Nick (played by Luke Treadaway), while the naive Honey is plied with brandy.
The big reveal at the end has maybe lost some of it’s potency. I get the impression that in 1962, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would’ve been controversial and shocking. The frank exposure of the truth behind the veneer has probably lost some of it’s edge now. ‘Shocking’ plays are ten e penny these day. but Albee’s dialogue is still sharp some 45 years on. I wouldn’t cut a line from it’s 3 hour run time.
Staunton brings all of her usual stamina and power to Martha. The musical theatre chops she has shown as Mama Rose in Jonathan Church’s excellent Gypsy revival have put her in good stead for this role. Martha shares Rose’s fragility, sexual allure and volume. I half expected Staunton to break out into Rose’s Turn at a few points. It really was a barnstorming, superlative performance – the kind that leaves you a bit shaken. Conleth Hill is equally ferocious. From George’s early subservience to the bolder Martha, his character grows in stature as the plot progresses, through jealousy to nurture. Treadaway brings the right level of smarmy to Nick. Its the least interesting character, but it’s believably acted at least. Imogen Poots completes the quartet. I’ve long been a fan of Poots, from a performance as Sally Bowles in a BBC biopic of Christopher Isherwood. She brings the same wide eyed naivety to Honey and plays silly drunk convincingly, attracting some of the biggest laughs.
For the most part, James MacDonald’s new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? keeps it simple, allowing Albee’s play and the actors to do their thing. It works. Albee had billing above the star casting and deservedly so. His play is the star here, but Staunton et al give it a good go. The most telling thing I can say is, I would watch it again – after reading more about the play.
The Harold Pinter seems to offer a good number of well priced seats, to see good plays and high profile actors – if there are seats left, I’d implore anyone to see it if they have the chance. Its open now, running until 27th May. Click here for more info.