Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Director James McDonald brings a stunning all-star production of Edward Albee’s most famous play to the West End. Brash, riveting and destructive, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made waves when it first premiered, nabbing the Tony Award for Best Play and was even adapted into Oscar-winning film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
In this new production, the award-winning cast consists Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill (best known as Varys from Game of Thrones) as couple Martha and George, and Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway as guests Honey and Nick. Martha, the daughter of an imposing college head is married to paunchy George, who teaches history in her father’s college. Both are in their 40s. When they’re tasked to entertain new faculty member Nick and his wife Honey, a house party quickly spirals into drunk shenanigans and reveals the dark games the couple plays, an acid criticism of the failure and disillusionment of the American Dream.
Martha and George are almost certainly theatre’s most terrifying couple. Playing sick, twisted emotional games with each other, the roles are reserved for only the most capable of actors, requiring an emotional and professional range across the play’s nearly 3 hour runtime. But both Staunton and Hill have been most capably cast, and bring the characters to dizzying new heights. Staunton in particular, is given the juiciest parts throughout the play, starting off with a commanding presence and completely cuckolding and emasculating her failure of her husband, and later on, is given the opportunity to show off her foxy side as a seductress and of course, a disturbing breakdown. Hill’s role is the reverse of that, painting the picture of a henpecked husband, attempting by all means to claw his way into what little position he can find through the fictions he spins, eventually turning the tide when he ups the ante and plays the game right.
The couple are damaged goods, broken after years of disappointments from living up to Martha’s imposing father’s expectations and George’s failure to rise in his career. Despite their large house (immaculately designed by Tom Pye), gorgeously adorned with thick carpets, giant wind chimes and modern looking, wooden walls, there’s an emptiness to it that engulfs the bickering couple, spending their days attempting to bitterly crush each other’s spirit, and plying themselves with alcohol. Yet, in spite of the nuclear-level toxicity, there’s an unspoken language of love between the two, and Staunton and Hill share a twisted onstage chemistry that’s as disturbing as it is tender in its own unique way. Martha at one point comments that George is the only man who’s ever made her happy, and she can only respond with rejection and hurt, an unknown number of affairs with younger, more promising men. It’s one of the most unique displays of love, and strangely poetic in its depiction of a long term relationship built on escapist tendencies and mutually assured destruction. Staunton and Hill have worked hard and their explosive performance really pays off, and as disgusting as their behaviour is onstage, it takes true talent to make their sick relationship oddly alluring at the same time.
At the very least, Martha and George certainly share more love than do Nick and Honey, whose charmed lives are marred by their supposed sham of a marriage. Nick’s blonde haired blue eyed all-American boy look, coupled with genius level intellect make him an ideal husband, an aspirational step towards the coveted American Dream. Honey, a regularly vomiting, ‘slim-hipped’ daughter of a ‘man of God’ seems poorly matched, and the childless couple reveal their own secrets, drawn out by the vicious nature of Martha and George’s sick party games. Luke Treadaway plays Nick to perfection, bringing across the sneer of a young man at his prime and the cruel disdain and belief that he will never become like George, while reluctantly receiving his comeuppance later on. Meanwhile Imogen Poots mines her role as best as she can for the drunk, blonde humour, and most of her lines managed to elicit uneasy laughter from the audience.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an exceptionally long play, clocking in at just under three hours and armed with two intermissions. Charles Balfour’s lighting, towards the end, also sets up sunlight that streams in through the window at the end of the long night. Although lengthy, its duration works to its benefit, immersing the audience completely in the play’s twisted little single room drama, feeling as if one is truly trapped in the worst house party ever as the runtime almost replicates the play’s diegetic time.
Edward Albee’s script has stood the test of time and remains one of the most thrilling, explosive pieces one can bring to the stage, and James McDonald has done well with this production. Few can rival the star power and stage presence of Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill, both who whom deliver some of their strongest, most traumatic stage work yet, and will certainly leave an indelible mark in viewers’ minds. Utterly disconcerting and still highly relevant to increasing feelings of disenfranchisement and inadequacy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is set to take the West End by storm and a definite must watch this season. Steel your heart and come in ready to be mind blown by a dark, witty script and quality theatre in this true modern classic.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays from 22 Feb to 27 May at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Tickets available here
Photo Credit: Johann Persson