You go into the late Edward Albee's 1962 masterpiece ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ already braced for impact. Maybe you studied it, maybe you saw the film, maybe you just know its reputation.
But bloody hell: in the hands of director James Macdonald - and his world class cast, headed by Imelda Staunton - it feels unexpectedly shattering. Not because of how extreme it makes the world of embittered New England couple George (Conleth Hill) and Martha (Staunton) seem, but because it makes it all horribly, plausibly human.
Under too-bright lights, accompanied by the headachey hiss of Adam Cork's white noise soundtrack, a nightmare plays out. It is 2am, and Martha has invited Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots) back to their house. He is a new, young academic at the university George works at and her father runs, and she has been instructed to be nice to him.
This does not go so well: George and Martha tear strips off each, then their guests. Bitter secrets are unearthed. But where sometimes the hosts' performance feel like a familiar ritual being reenacted, here it all feels horribly fresh and avoidable. Staunton and Hill are sensitive live wires, not fossilised weirdos. If they'd just gone to bed at a sensible time, if he'd felt a little less humiliated by her, if she'd been a little less goaded by him, if everyone had had just a splash less liquor, if just one barbed insult fewer had been tossed, if Treadaway's Nick had been less of a douche, if Poots's Honey was less of a lightweight, if, if, if... then the awful events that follow might have been avoided. There is a terrible, pit-of-the-stomach sense of free fall, of something uniquely disastrous occurring as the strutting, jaded Nick proves receptive to the older couple's special brand of psychological warfare.
At some point in the last several years, Staunton took her place as an official national treasure, her generation's heir to Dench and Smith, the sort of actor who you expect to blow you away. She is as good as you'd hope - playful, witty and malicious, but also desperately, desperately vulnerable, lonely and sensitive and frightened of the world outside her constructed realm of barbs and sneers. When she breaks down at the end, it's not just desserts, but the final failure of an elaborate coping mechanism.
For me, though, the real revelation was Hill. His George is a peculiar, frightening mix of Bill Murray and Steve Bannon (who he looks the spit of): deadpan, charming and even likeable, but with a shockingly caustic nastiness underneath. There is a real sense that if the couple are matched in intellect, it is abuse from him – as much as anything else – that have led them to this point.
Treadaway and Poots have the smaller roles, but make good on them. After goody two shoes lead parts in ‘War Horse and ‘Curious Incident’, Treadaway clearly relishes the chance to be a selfish drunken shit, who gripes about his wife and almost has it off with the hostess. And Poots is painfully sad and sweet, a free spirit only saddled with her grumpy husband because the times and their families expected it – she is ripe for becoming a new Martha.
Many aspects of this production feel pretty trad - Tom Pye's set, for starters - but none of that stifles this revival's horrible, vertiginous sense of fast-moving tragedy, of crashing descent.