Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre

The room is set and the bar is fully stocked so brace yourself for one of the most vicious battles ever staged – we’re all going to George and Martha’s, and it’s going to be a very bumpy night! Edward Albee’s 1962 play, revived at the Harold Pinter Theatre, has lost none of its capacity to shock as two couples trade unendurably bitter barbs at an academic after-party. Its a scathing presentation of long marriage, staled and sharpened by years of frustrated ambition, disappointment and a genuine desire to cause pain makes for uncomfortable but electrifying viewing in James Macdonald’s new version.

One night after a welcome event for new Faculty members, Nick and Honey are asked to the home of George, Associate Professor in the History Department, and his wife Martha who happens to be the university President’s daughter. Already partially sozzled and well-past midnight, these semi-strangers engage in reserved conversation, but as the drinks flow all too freely, the façade is shattered as Martha’s alcoholism and George’s years of battering turn into a malevolent battle of one-upmanship, sweeping the young newbies into their terrible game. As the endless night rolls on, the claws come out, truths are told and illusions irrevocably shattered.

Academic life is always a fascinating area to examine – a group of people thrown together sometimes for decades in an enforced hierarchy allowing egos to collide and under constant pressure to perform, their future dependant on their continued ability to direct and influence their area of study. No wonder then that many writers have attempted to unpick the feuds and foibles of this close community, from Henrik Ibsen who focuses on the competition for academic promotion and publication in Hedda Gabler to David Lodge’s series of comedy novel that show university life and the partner swapping whirlwind of conferences.

Albee’s approach combines these to examine not just the bullish scramble for position among male academics George and Nick who are instantly wary of one another, but opens out its far-reaching effect on their ‘civilian’ wives Martha and Honey – with Martha representing years of coming second to the pursuit of intellectual thought in both the eyes of her husband and, crucially, her father. So this is also a play about the nature of relationships between people coming from different perspectives who want different things.

The reference to Hedda Gabler then becomes crucial, and anyone who has seen the superb Ivo van Hove version at the National will see the complementarities between that play and this story of George and Martha. Hedda and Martha are women trapped by societal convention into marriages that will never make them happy, but neither can exist in isolation – they need the conflict, the chance to flirt, driven by the energy of the combustible nature of their relationships and the chance to exert their power over others, meddling with lives for fun. Had Hedda’s story not turned out as it did, had she stayed frustratingly married to Tesman for 20 years, it is not inconceivable that cruel, alcoholic and raging Martha would be the result.

While it may be difficult for many to shift their thoughts from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the well-known film adaptation, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill successfully banish all thoughts of earlier incarnations with a fresh and deadly take on the warring couple. Hill’s George is seemingly a weakling, constantly belittled and worn down by his wife’s endless scorn, while Martha is brutal, unrelenting and acid tongued, but with Staunton’s incredible touch for showing the more broken inner life of someone who in lesser hands would be all-monster.

To reference another famous pairing, they have a touch of the future Macbeths; imagine they had never killed Duncan and assumed his throne. Had Macbeth refused his lady’s entreaties and remained the Thane of Glamis, all that childless ambition would turn upon itself, the once close and happy couple would be torn to shreds by her distaste for her husband’s cowardice, and his quiet resentment of her aversion to his scruples. This is what Hill and Staunton give us in their layered and cultivated performance.

Staunton has had an impressive couple of years with Gypsy catapulting her to a new level of popular acclaim and award success, building on an already varied and successful career. As Martha, she captures the many conflicting aspects of the character – the downtrodden wife and the sexy vamp, curdled femininity and masculine aggression – which constantly shifts the audience perspective on who this woman really is. We never fully sympathise with anyone, all in their own way venal and calculating, but Staunton shows us clearly how this Martha came to be. And it’s a gripping performance as she slithers from self-pity to sexual provocation, manipulating the affections of her guests, but they can’t turn their back for instant because her bitter recriminations are as sharp as a carving knife in their back.

Hill’s George is also a world away from Richard Burton’s more forceful performance in what felt more like a marriage of equals. Here, instead, the milder George has endured years of abuse for his lack of advancement beyond Associate Professor, something he seems resigned to and while occasionally hitting back with remarks on Martha’s age, it’s clear she has more power to hurt him. So, instead in the first two acts we see George’s continual degradation at Martha’s hand – and even to some extent fighting a losing battle with Nick – and while they seem to have played all these games before, tonight they go too far and something in George snaps which Hill convincingly portrays as a man pushed to extremes and reaching his limit of endurance. What follows feels like a restoration in George’s masculinity and position as Hill calmly navigates the aftermath of an explosive night.

The visitors make for an equally interesting pairing, not wide-eyed with shock at their host’s behaviour but faintly embarrassed and harbouring troubles of their own. Luke Treadaway’s Nick begins the evening with the perfect life – handsome, intelligent, beautiful wife and new job with everything to aim for and as he talks awkwardly with George, Treadaway offers the first hints of his deep ambition and growing arrogance. During the night Nick’s initial discomfort is swept aside by an inability to leave until his has fully charmed his host (or more particularly the hostess) and got them to believe in his fictional veneer. But again Martha is too canny for him and when given a opportunity to go home or stay and advance his career by indulging the President’s daughter, Nick makes his choice and seals his fate. Treadaway shows us Nick trying to cling on to his smooth and decent image but there are clear hints that his future is now out of his hands.

Likewise Imogen Poots’s syrupy Honey is almost a cliché when she first arrives, overly charming, innocent and rather oblivious to what’s going on. But she and Nick have their own less than moral history as the truth about their marriage and early relationship comes out. Poots has less stage time than the other characters but it’s enough to see Honey become wilful, angry with her husband for revealing their secrets and resentful of his lecturing. As they stagger home at dawn Treadaway and Poots show us a young couple facing a possible future as George and Martha, will their already cracked relationship lead them down the same path or has the night before given them enough warning to change their ways?

Tom Pye’s one-room set is a fairly traditional-looking academic home in the 60s full of books, objects and soft furnishings which give the cast plenty of places to move around and add variety to a long evening, and is simple enough not to take anything away from the verbal sparring. However with Ivo van Hove showing us the power of Ibsen and Miller without the clutter it would be interesting to see what it could look like denuded of its normal period setting, but that’s for another day.

This is a very wordy play and across three acts in three hours it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Macdonald’s direction is crisp, creating a sense of claustrophobia and increased loss of control as the evening wears on, which make each wince-inducing volley both so difficult to watch and simultaneously fascinating, as the tension ramps up and we wait to see how far the characters will really go. And in its display of animalistic mauling – Martha at one point is told to wipe the blood from her mouth – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has lost none of its ability to genuinely shock. Just don’t try to drink along!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27th May. Tickets start from £15 but there are ATG booking fees to be aware of and there is a daily TIX ticket lottery. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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