Kat Stewart: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is “a monster and a masterpiece”

The Offspring star talks about returning to the stage to take on a beast of a play alongside her husband

Ashleigh Hastings
Arts & Culture Editor
Kat Stewart with a cigarette hanging from her mouth on stage
Photograph: Eugene Hyland

Kat Stewart rose to mainstream fame thanks to her acclaimed performances as Billie Proudman in Offspring and Roberta Williams in Underbelly, but she’s quick to point out that her heart lies just as much with the stage as it does with the screen. 

“I think if you leave theatre too long, you lose your nerves,” she says. “So I always make sure I do a play at least every two years, and I love it and I hate it at the same time.” 

If there’s one play that would count as throwing herself in the deep end, she’s chosen it. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, in Stewart’s words, “a monster and a masterpiece” which tackles gender politics, modern marriage and the state of America across three dynamic dialogue-packed hours.

The classic play, considered one of the best of the last century, is rarely staged. “It is a beast,” says Stewart. “But it is extraordinary writing.” Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, the ensemble company where Stewart and her husband, fellow actor David Whiteley, first met, staged a special production of the play last year with the couple both starring.

Actors on stage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Photograph: Eugene Hyland

The season at Red Stitch’s intimate converted church hall headquarters sold out before curtains even came up, and now Melbourne audiences have another chance to witness the acclaimed play at the comparatively gargantuan Comedy Theatre. It’s the first time in Red Stitch’s history that one of its productions will transfer to the main stage and it could be a watershed moment for the local theatre industry. 

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” says Stewart. “It’s a bit like the off-Broadway model. I love that producers can take a production that’s done well, move it to a bigger theatre and let more people see that work.”

 This could be the start of something. 

So, why was Stewart so keen to take on a play that’s famously a “beast” to pull off? 

“It’s the moment before I go on I’m like ‘I’m doing this by choice? What’s wrong with me?’. Then I’m on and I love it,” she says.

“There's nothing like the spontaneity and the kind of danger of theatre that's absolutely addictive.”

Despite the fact that the play was first staged in 1962, scandalising audiences with its raw and visceral depiction of a conflict-ridden marriage, the play remains both shocking and relatable.

Anxiety about the role of technology in our personal lives, the disappointment of middle age and the gender politics of marriage all cut just as deep as they did when the play was originally written.

“I find it weirdly reassuring that these concerns were happening 60 years ago. It makes me feel less alone.”

And although these themes are timeless, for Stewart herself, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hits a whole lot differently than it did in her twenties. “I read it in my twenties and thought oh, it’s amazing… I think I was 49 when I read it again.”

Upon her second reading, she realised it was “not just a fantastically witty and shocking brawl between drunks”. “This time I could see it was also a love story and it was about the heartbreak of middle age.”

Stewart’s role of Martha is a demanding one that could make for a heavy burden for any actor to behold, but she says starring alongside Whiteley makes it a pleasure. “I knew him as an actor first and I trust him,” she says. 

Actors on stage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Photograph: Eugene Hyland

“We worked together a lot, in another life before having kids, and so there’s kind of a great shorthand that’s still there, and trust.

“We have a history of working together as actors before we even got together. I think if we were working together for the first time and we didn’t have that history, that would be scary.” 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is playing at the Comedy Theatre until July 21. Read our review of the original season and get tickets here.

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