FringeReview UK 2017
Edward Albee’s 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf directed by James MacDonaldat the Harold Pinter Theatre stars Imelda Staunton as Martha, Conleth Hill as George with Luke Treadaway as biologist Nick and Imogen Poots as his wife Honey. Tom Pye’s front-on single set replicates a comfortable Eastboard college professor’s home. It’s night through to dawn, so Charles Balfour’s lighting modulates many shifts and near-blackouts. Adam Cork makes an envelope of raucous sound and musical snatches, once of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Adagio. Mostly it’s healthy midstream mid-century.
Imelda Staunton as Martha might be the starriest name in this stunning revival of Edward Albee’s 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf directed by James MacDonald; but she’s matched by Conleth Hill’s George and given exemplary support by Luke Treadaway as biologist Nick and Imogen Poots – in her particularly ungrateful role as his hapless wife Honey. Tom Pye’s front-on single set replicates a comfortable Eastboard college professor’s home, or would do if George wasn’t stuck at Associate Professor, passed over for reasons that emerge jagged, despite being married to the Founder’s daughter. It’s night through to dawn, so Charles Balfour’s lighting modulates many shifts and near-blackouts. Adam Cork makes an envelope of raucous sound and musical snatches, once of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Adagio as Honey improvises a drunken dance round it. Mostly it’s healthy midstream mid-century.
We’re treated to a splenetic sparring as George finds after arriving back with his wife at two a.m. that Martha’s taken her father’s imprecation literally: invite the up-and-coming mathematician Nick to their home, with his wife. At two? And he’s not even a mathematician but biologist. Were treated to sparring and all the unexpurgated original text including the F word as George slyly opens the door on a startled young couple. It’s clear replications abound: both men have married money, both couples are ostensibly childless, but George and Martha have a son, somewhere else, it seems. Nick and Honey aren’t what George and Martha once were – they lack that level of awareness – nor will they become them in thirty years time. But they will take some history lessons home.
The structure of this three-act work is finely calibrated. Whilst Martha flirts with sexy Nick, George who has no fear of sexual rivalry, sees in Nick a deeper threat, the scientist who’ll call the end of history, the rubbing out of personality through DNA-engineering, a startlingly prescient take on paranoias and real fears people now entertain, as well as the increasingly conformist mind-sets US and UK governments have pressed upon their populations since around 1980. Not or nothing does George later take up Spengler’s Decline of the West. George also treats Nick to narratives we find out aren’t what they seem. And George has a habit of using narratives, confidences creatively. There’s a novel in all this. George we find ash written it. /but its fate, and his thwarting, must wait.
Whilst Poot’s superbly-calibrated Honey, deeply unhappy with herself and wholly swamped by personalities and alcohol larger than herself, slips into stupor punctuated by vomiting to start again, Nick and Martha play one gambit against George’s playing both of them. Nor is it entirely one-sides. Just when he thinks he’s either leaving or gaining a foothold on the craggy intimacy of either spouse, Nick’s knocked down again. Tradaway spins on edgy preppiness to assert his coming-man status over has-been George, already sidelined by younger men, whilst George summons his devastating humanist wit and powerful intellect – clearly he’s no second-rate drudge –to combat both Nick’s assumptions and Martha’s over-writing of Nick’s sarky little sulks. Treadaway’s finely-tuned bafflement and smugness alternate in one final rapacious move on Martha after much cajoling.
Imagine the chagrin Nicks subjected to by both spouses for not being more than a houseboy, not a man, in other words not rising to a challenge complicitly observed by both husband as well as willing wife. But if it’s Hump the Wife and Humiliate the Host it’s also now Humiliate or Hunt the Guests. And George has one final trick: that son.
Hill’s outstanding as George, summoning both his bulk and his baulk, his furies suppressed under the thinness of veneers, his confidence and vulnerability. His insouciant reading of Spengler, and later hurling it at the lampshade, encompass some of his rage-range, but by no means all the stiletto urbanity, his puling-away from Treadaway’s smug inheritance of power. Even when Treadaway’s Nick kisses Martha he discovers them holding his ice bucket and retreats till they’ve done with disarming and with the ice appropriate sang-froid.
It’s his reactions to Martha, his feeding back her own local furies frustration and utter despair that Hill’s stature confirms itself as an outstanding George. He can be tender, not just in the final moments but at certain points where they kiss there’s passion and repulsion at times conveying their deep love and sometime loathing. As Martha points out George has been her only truly satisfying lover.
Staunton’s Martha is an operatic tour-de-force though the only time she sings or chants is a whispering wisp of despair and fright at the end. Everything Martha attempts has to be outsize, and shifting every game plan – as she acknowledges George is the only one who can pace her game for slugging game – she shifts register, vocally holding her voice in scorned reserve till she can-belto dismissals or desire for something other than the damage her marriage has brought George, and by rebound herself. Her Martha’s still sexy, very sassy, monstrous yet enticing. What’s remarkable is Staunton’s change of pitch so none of her assaults seem a re-has of repeat volume of a previous sally.
This is a stunning production, developed much like an opera, musical in its scoring of how two people torture each other with devastating, often destructive love.