'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' review or 'Tell me when it's over.'
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Edward Albee
12th March 2017, Harold Pinter Theatre
When Imelda Staunton makes her first entry as Martha, in Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’, she is swearing loudly and in a whirling panting rage. She swears, she twitches and she paces. Staunton’s Martha seems to possess all the energy and rage you have ever felt – only it has been bottled for a thousand years, shaken vigorously, and finally released. The word visceral was invented for this performance. The word ‘acidic’ – but so acidic that it has become something else, something festering and awful – was invented for Conleth Hill’s turn as George. Never have you seen two more curdled souls. Rarely will you see two more forceful and upsetting performances. I, for one, never want to see this show again.
Is Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ one of the most relentless plays ever written? It might just be – and James Macdonald certainly hasn’t wasted time looking about for any other pitches, except perhaps in the play’s fading moments. From the second Martha storms through the front door after a predictably disappointing (perhaps humiliating) party – and her husband George slides in after her – this is a battering and gut-twisting experience. You will not want to be there. It is like being hit by a tornado of words and the words are written on tiny flying shards of glass and they all say this: MISERY, RAGE and LONELINESS.
That isn’t to say that Imelda Staunton’s and Conleth Hill’s performances are one note. They are not. Staunton’s Martha is bitter and angry but as the night wears on - and Martha and George’s game of ‘Get the Guest’ (in this case, the guests are young couple Honey and Nick, new to the university at which Martha and George live and work) heats up and boils over – we see many sides of Martha. We see sexy Martha, as she coolly seduces Nick. We see broken and neglected Martha, as she rages against George’s seeming indifference to her open infidelity. But every side we see of Martha is an ugly one. And almost every angle we see on Martha and George’s relationship – except perhaps that closing image as the two clutch each other in the shadows – reveals a broken thing. It gets very hard to keep on looking and listening, to be endlessly and violently confronted with their pain.
In some ways, Conleth Hill’s is the most devastating performance. His sorrow and disappointment – at himself, at others, at his career and his life – is more deeply hidden but somehow more embedded. George’s boiling disappointment has worked its way through his body, sunken to the very centre of him and then radiated out in every direction. Whatever George says; whatever awful insult he might fling at Martha; whatever snide remark he might make towards new teacher Nick (a perfectly smug Luke Treadaway); or whatever cool blow he might land on lovely little Honey’s head (Imogen Poots, frighteningly naïve), he need not make the slightest effort. Conleth Hill’s George never raises his voice, he never loses his tempt. The malice slides right out of him. It is part of him now, an ugly second skin.
At first it is a thrill to watch this husband and wife go at each other. We delight in their quick wit and their hatred almost feels noble in its honesty – an honesty that stands in great contrast to Honey and Nick’s cowardly self-deceit. But over the course of 3 hours those chuckles begin to dry up and a deep sadness sets in. Is this it? Is this really it? Why do Honey and Nick not just leave? More pertinently, why don’t we? But for some terrible reason we stay rooted in our seats and, desperately unhappy now, watch Martha and George rehearse their sad rage for three heart-stopping hours. When the sun finally comes up and the curtain goes down, we scuttle gratefully away from the theatre – and leave George and Martha sitting in the shadows, doomed to play out this awful night ad infinitum.