Monday, May 15, 2017

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Harold Pinter Theatre: Let battle commence...

There is no stopping Imelda Staunton; where other leading ladies will play one of the big stonking parts then have some time off to recuperate, Imelda is knocking them out of the park one after the other.

Mrs Lovett in Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD at Chichester and the Adelphi and Margie in David Lindsay-Abaire's GOOD PEOPLE at Hampstead and the Noel Coward Theatre was followed by her titanic Mama Rose in GYPSY at both Chichester and the Savoy.  That's enough to make any other actress sit back in the relative peace of a film or tv studio but Imelda simply squared her shoulders again for battle and has now taken on the corrosive Martha in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Not that Martha will make Imelda take a rest as when it closes she jumps straight into the National's production of FOLLIES as Sally, another woman on the edge.  Because if there is something that links Nellie Lovett, Margie, Mama Rose and Martha is the fact that they are all women who are just hanging on, racing against time to find some kind of fulfillment or peace.

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? finally confirmed Edward Albee as one of America's leading playwrights in 1962 when it premiered on Broadway but even it's huge success could not win it the Pulitzer Prize that year as it was judged "too filthy"!  He was later to go on and win three of them for A DELICATE BALANCE, SEASCAPE and THREE TALL WOMEN. Of course the intense screen version of VIRGINIA WOOLF only confirmed it's status along with winning a second Academy Award for Elizabeth Taylor and launching the career of director Mike Nichols.

I last saw it on stage in Anthony Page's 2007 production which transferred from Broadway with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin as Martha and George but it is good to see it again to be reminded of the explosive nature of Albee's writing and the stagecraft involved in keeping us hooked on the lives of four people over it's relatively real-time length.

It's a play where the balance of power tips drunkenly between it's two main protagonists: George and Martha are a married couple living on the campus of a college which is run by Martha's father and where George is an associate professor in the history department.  Their life together has settled into one of weary recriminations and barely-hidden resentments.

In the small hours of the night following a party to welcome the new intake of teachers, Martha invites a new couple back for a drink much to George's exasperation.  Nick, who is due to start teaching biology, arrives with his gauche wife Honey and the scene is set for George and Martha to slowly draw the new couple into their private hell.  Honey is a pushover but Nick rises to the challenge until he too shows his true nature.  As the new day dawns, a line is crossed and life will never be the same for George and Martha...

What one forgets is how funny the play is - one remembers the vicious insults but George's barbed needled comments and Martha's gimlet-eyed insults are there in abundance too.  Of course there are occasional longueurs during the three hour running time but Albee needs to sometimes bring it down to a simmering level for the explosions to pay off later.

Director James Macdonald - to keep the cooking analogy just a bit further - has the pressure cooker atmosphere going throughout as George the turtle outpaces Martha the hare; she might have knocked him out in a pretend boxing-match in front of her father but George now knows that in a war of attrition it's who's left standing at the end of all the battles that claims victory. 

But what victory is there to be won in this match?  Both George and Martha face an uncertain future at the end of the play with their once-secret prop now gone, but Albee does suggest that in the cold grey dawn there might just be a chance of a new life together.  The third act is called The Exorcism after all...

Macdonald has Imelda matched perfectly by Coneth Hill, his hangdog expression and sagging-sofa posture hiding a gladiator tried and tested in the field of marital combat.  Although they both have their moments I was less impressed with Luke Treadaway's Nick or Imogen Poots as Honey.  Her lack of stage experience showed up opposite her three colleagues and Treadaway felt too lightweight to convince us of Nick's hidden nasty streak. 

But the night belongs to Conleth Hill and the unstoppable Staunton, her ability to go to the extremes of her character are a wonder to behold, and in the final nerve-shredding moments of the play she draws you to Martha in her loneliness and despair.  "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I am, George. I am"

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