Edward Albee's Tony Award-winning 1962 drama takes in marital mess and social mores in Cold War America
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Is not that kind of play. It’s one of those ugly breaks. The play is a compound fracture with bone and blood exploding through skin. It’s a tree struck by lightning, burnt out and felled. It’s disarmingly elegant and frequently brutal.
George (Darren Gilshenan) and Martha (Genevieve Lemon) are a longtime married couple and well-practiced in the art of insults and barbed in-jokes, sprinkled with dashes of affection and loathing. They have a rich, risky rapport that turns bitter, sour, and then rotten over the course of the play, which takes place between 2am and dawn.
They’ve been at a university party – George is an associate history professor; Martha’s father is president of the school – and Martha has invited a freshly-arrived young couple home for drinks. They are good-looking Nice Guy Nick (Brandon McClelland) and his perfectly put together, seemingly demure wife Honey (Claire Lovering). It isn’t long before Nick and Honey are pawns within, and witness to, George and Martha’s remarkable destruction.
Written in 1962, the play is frequently staged across the world, and assigned as a high school English text. It endures; playwright Edward Albee’s acerbic wit and relentless distaste for polite social norms has seen to that. And to play George or Martha is a common dream for actors, because the parts are full of zinging tumbles of words and emotional heft.
Gilshenan and Lemon don’t disappoint. Two natural comedians, they’re closely attuned to the musicality of wit, and their punchlines are perfectly, devastatingly placed. Lemon is colossal as Martha: unnerving, terrible and irresistible. Her words float in the air and hang there until she bites the end of a line, leaving George – and the audience – reeling. Gilshenan’s George is more interior and quietly razor-sharp.
Honey is the most thankless of Albee’s quartet – easily dismissed and often offstage, more a prop for Nick and catalyst for his own unravelling rather than a participant or partner in it – but Lovering imbues her with a brimming-over vitality and a hint of inner strength. Nick, of course, is quick to subdue that strength; in McClelland’s hands, Nick is suffused with pride (and necessarily diffused, in turn, by his insecurities).
In this production, director Iain Sinclair creates and sustains an unsettling buoyancy: from the first moments of light quips, a sense of threat in the air is wrestling with a natural urge to laugh. It’s tense and often euphoric. At the end of three exhausting hours, actors and audience alike are spent. This is not a play for one of your fragile days.
Michael Hankin’s set is keenly observed in its lived-in carelessness, with stacks of books and food-strewn plates and a rich, dusty redness to the sofa, the centrepiece of the room. Stubbornly realistic and in harmony with Sian James-Holland’s lights, its precise messiness feels just right for this couple that exist somewhere between apathetic and bellicose.
It’s this relentless realism that makes Steve Toulmin’s sound design stand out. He uses augmented breaking glass to support a bottle as it’s smashed onstage and lingering door chimes: it reminds us of our shared suspension of reality by breaking it with overt stage magic. Depending on your taste in theatrical tricks it could either dampen, or heighten, your emotional response to the play.
Classic plays in 2017 can sometimes feel like dusty bottles of medicine – you have to take it because even though the stuff inside has probably expired it’s still theoretically good for you – but Sinclair and his cast have brushed all dustballs aside from this one. It’s as dated as anything from the sixties would be in premise and verbiage, but the language still spits and sings, and you might still glimpse your least favourite self in the middle of the brawl.