Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the most famous plays of the 20th century. It’s a vicious thing: married couple Martha and George play games that begin as wordplay and turn into emotional warfare; they drag their house guests, young couple Nick and Honey, into the fray; they speak to each other with deliberate cruelty. Erupting onto the Broadway stage in 1962, this scalding portrait of 1960s America burned up the big screen in 1966 with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the leads. Sixty years on, the play still has some power to get under your skin – when the tension builds just right, it’s agonising.
This new production for Sydney Festival from the State Theatre Company South Australia, helmed by actor/director Margaret Harvey, a First Nations woman of Saibai Island blood and English heritage, aims to complicate the play’s escalating conflicts and to have them engage with, and reflect, Australia’s structural, institutional and social practices of racism.
This is tackled via three key elements. The first is accents. Traditionally, plays from the American canon are presented locally with their original setting intact. Here, however, Harvey’s cast use their own accents to make it an Australian experience. This breaks down a storytelling barrier – this story isn’t happening ‘somewhere else’. It’s happening here, which means we are socially implicated in its habits and practices.
The second is the set. The play takes place in the living room of a house on the campus of a small university, and often designers make it as realistic as possible. Here, set and costume designer Ailsa Paterson refuses the relief of realism, instead putting the cast on display in an ultra-modern white space marked out by clear screens, white benches and a moat. At the center is an artwork encased in glass; it, like the rest of the design, disrupts any natural flow of movement.
The backdrop is a chalkboard scrawled over with riffs on the title in varying phrases and language, so even the walls reinforce the spectre of oppressive educational institutions and their storied history of racism, classism, and misogyny. We can’t fall into the story – instead, with this set, we become detached observers studying behaviours.
The third aspect, and the most critical, is the casting. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has a long history of being staged with all-white casts. Not so here, and the cast brings new strengths and energy to an old story.
Susan Prior, a white actor, plays Martha (placing her white father, the president of the college campus on which the play takes place, in a position of ultimate white authority), and Jimi Bani, an actor and storyteller from the Torres Strait, is her under-achieving academic husband George (who has always struggled in gaining respect from Martha and her father alike).
The young couple drawn into George and Martha’s game are also played by actors of colour: Rashidi Edward is biologist Nick, and Juanita Navas-Nguyen plays Honey.
This is colour-conscious casting, which incorporates and thoughtfully considers the cultural identity of actors in a role, and which the Albee estate has previously forbidden on the grounds that it may fundamentally change the meaning of the play.
And it’s true: in Harvey’s production, the meaning of the play has shifted and evolved. Martha’s barbs, in particular, carry additional weight; George and Nick’s discomfort with each other has new depths; Honey’s frailty feels more socially constructed than an inarguable fact.
Harvey’s production has an admirable clarity: her approach is easily discerned and her vision easy to follow. The set reframes our viewing experience and keeps us at a critical arms-length; the unnatural movements the actors must make on the stage – often separated and looking at the audience, not each other – helps us to resist falling into the story without thinking about the world that has led these characters in this moment in time.
The problem is that the play, while a sturdy vessel and a classic, cannot hold these new layers of meaning. Without its element of psychological realism, and when we are not beckoned in conspiratorially close, the play takes on a laboured heaviness that betrays its own internal heartbeat.
We study what happens; we don’t feel it. What we do feel, though, is every minute of the play’s three hour and fifteen minute running time.
Plus, some of its now-dated language, jokes, and phrasing creak and groan under the weight of contemporary and more disruptive sensibilities. Already loaded with euphemisms, double meanings and secrets, some scenes feel so loaded that they wind up hollow.
It’s all a bit exhausting. That’s at least a little by design.
In the final act of the play, when the sparse soundscape (by Andrew Howard) gives way to drum beats that act as warning signs, this production finally just goes for blood. It’s an intensity much-missed in the first hours in the play. It crackles with meaning and finally finds pure precision. Unfortunately, it arrives too late.