Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Harold Pinter Theatre
10th March 2017
Many years before writing the play, Edward Albee saw the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled in soap on a bathroom mirror, and it struck him as a typically intellectual joke. Punning the classic Disney song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’, the title questions whether it is possible to live without illusion, a motif examined in many of Woolf’s writings.
Illusion is at the heart of this fascinating and insightful work; a nerve-shreddingly cathartic deconstruction of the American dream. James Macdonald’s production not only emphasises the brutal beauty of the text, but the “fine sense of the ridiculous” that characterises a narrative that punctuates horror with hilarity. Conleth Hill’s and Imelda Staunton’s performances are quite extraordinary and coupled with excellent support from Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots, the production spares no punches in depicting the profound complexities of human misery.
Returning from a faculty party in the early hours, history professor George (Conleth Hill) and his wife Martha (Imelda Staunton) have a drink and exchange barbs. Martha reveals that biology professor Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots), whom they met that evening, will be joining them for a nightcap. The young couple arrives, and George and Martha’s exchanges become increasingly fraught. What follows is a series of sadistic and ambiguous games, which cross the boundaries of reality and sanity, and reveal the shaky foundations that underpin both marriages.
The shifts in tone, and the ever-changing power dynamics are brilliantly handled. This is well seeded by a first Act which, for the most part, is more overtly comic than its successors. Threats of violence are implicitly disingenuous, not least in the memorable scene where George fires a rifle at Martha, only for a full-sized umbrella to burst out, to uproarious laughter.
The diminishing of laughter becomes an elevated theme, the titular joke having been sung at the evening’s party to supposed hilarity, and appearing throughout the play at increasingly sombre intervals. George’s story to Nick of a schoolmate who misordered a drink, to the mirth of his friends, is qualified by the revelation that he accidentally killed his mother, then his father, in separate, grisly incidents. The laughter which “became more general but did not subside” becomes a harsh metaphor for our viewing experience – the revisiting of comic motifs in tragic moments lending a disturbingly humorous quality to even the darkest scenes.
A particularly impressive example of shifting power dynamics can be found in Macdonald’s utilisation of alcohol, a source of courage and lubricator of fantasy, to catalyse the narrative. Notably, in Act 1 George breaks a bottle after Martha’s invective strikes a nerve, his shattered masculinity emphasised by her hope that, ‘on his salary’, it was empty. Later, Nick’s frustrated tryst with Martha, caused by alcohol-induced impotence, allows George to graduate from mocked to mocker, and conspire with his wife to treat Nick as their ‘houseboy’.
This cruel, yet intimate exchange between husband and wife is contingent on their abuse of power as hosts, and is one of many occasions in which they seek to corrupt their guests. Honey, too, is plied with alcohol, and her giggling and childish calls for ‘Violence!’ later make way for sobs at her possible infertility, drawing unhappy parallels with Martha. The production does a tremendous job of implying that Martha and George’s power plays require an audience so that they can experience a new perspective on their suffering. Of particular note is Martha’s heartrending speech to Nick about how frequently she and George cry, which lends great pathos to the play’s conclusion.
Imelda Staunton’s performance is testament to her status as one of the West End’s most revered actors. Whilst her Martha is a demonstrative and outspoken figure, she hints at the thousand desperate pleas for affection which have left her hopeless and loveless. Her feelings of betrayal when George deviates from the rules of their game are absolutely fascinating, with Staunton challenging our expectations regarding honesty, kindness and fidelity with remarkable empathy and perception.
Conleth Hill’s George is every bit as impressive. Whether he is incongruously dancing to Beethoven’s ‘Speaking Unto Nations’, or earnestly recounting an improbable story, he is a paradoxical figure – a man so studiously enigmatic that he struggles to make sincere human connections. Hill conveys a keen sense of panic under this mask, the sense of a man who knows he will intermittently break and fears it utterly. For this reason, the understated manner in which he outlines the history of his and Martha’s son, enacted to inflict maximum cruelty, is both chilling and desperately sad.
Nick and Honey are undoubtedly the beta couple, yet Treadaway and Poots’ performances are memorable not just as foils to George and Martha, but as a critique of society’s expectations for young couples. Treadaway’s Nick is, on the surface, disgustingly ambitious, envisaging his relationship with Martha as a stepping stone to the top of the University pyramid. Yet Nick’s arrogance is tempered with masculine fears of physical and emotional impotence, emphasised beautifully through his exchanges with Poots, which are variously tender and disdainful.
Poots steals the stage in several scenes, not least during a exchange in which she pointedly calls her husband ‘dear’, demonstrating a hitherto concealed anger which is genuinely shocking. She gives a character who is so often undignified – dancing drunkenly on her own, and spending a fair chunk of the play curled up with a bottle offstage – both humour and humanity. This is particularly evident when George refers to her as numerous, escalatingly sexual terms of endearment. Although Honey seems enchanted, her reticence to respond speaks not so much of modesty, but of her loneliness and desire for her husband’s affection. It is a thoroughly impressive West End debut.
James Macdonald’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a breathtaking depiction of human misery peeled back, with four wonderful performances at its core. If I see a better production this year, then I will count myself phenomenally lucky.
Photos: Johan Persson