'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?': Theater Review

Johan Persson
From left, Luke Treadaway, Conleth Hill, Imogen Poots and Imelda Staunton in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Olivier winners Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill star as the hosts from hell in this West End production of Edward Albee's best known play, arguably American theater's richest examination of an unhappy marriage.

After her roof-raising performance as Mama Rose in the recent West End revival of Gypsy, Imelda Staunton now blows the doors off with a hurricane-force rendition of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Director James Macdonald's finely tuned and neatly turned production of Edward Albee’s dissection of marital dysfunction amongst minor-league academics in the early 1960s pairs Staunton with Conleth Hill (the Machiavellian Varys on Game of Thrones), who gives just as good as he gets as an embittered, sardonic George.

Although those two get the best solos, the quartet is filled out with nuanced, responsive performances from Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway as Honey and Nick, the Midwestern naïfs dragged over to the home of Martha and George at two in the morning to be the audience for — and victims of — the older couple’s mind games. With rave reviews already pouring in across the British media, tickets will be hard to find for a limited run that wraps May 27.

Albee died at age 88 in September, which may be one reason why this production will soon be joined in the West End by a revival of his later work The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? starring Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo.

That said, it's not as if Albee's reputation, and that of this 1962 play in particular, has waned much. Although Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? takes a good three hours to perform, making it a challenge for fidgety modern audiences, it was only 12 years ago that Anthony Page's production starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin opened on Broadway, toured extensively and transferred to London for a spell, followed in 2010 by a well-received Steppenwolf production that won Tonys for best revival, director Pam MacKinnon and lead actor Tracy Letts.

Aptly enough for a playwright who can claim not just one but three works with question marks in their titles (see also Knock! Knock! Who's There!?), Albee's enquiring examination of the psychodynamics of matrimony at a specific point in American history remains as probing and revealing as ever. From certain angles, Woolf plays like a fictionalized DSM-5 entry on narcissistic personality disorder, co-dependency and borderline personalities as it examines psychological damage with remarkably perspicacious acuity.

Martha and Honey maybe live in a pre-Women's Movement world, all leathery browns and shades of dun, thanks to designer Tom Pye's period-perfect palette, where women's choices were severely limited and femininity was virtually synonymous with fertility. But their consciousnesses were already being raised by doubts; Martha particularly challenges the social order with the simplest weapons at her disposal: her wits and her rage. She's a gloriously "nasty woman," the castrating harridan white men of a certain age fear most.

Staunton, with those astonishingly powerful lungs of hers, her bosom sculpted by shapewear into a battering ram, plays Martha at full tilt from the start. We're only 10 minutes in when she screeches "I don't bray!" back at George with such force (and great comic effect) you wonder how loud it will get by the end. Thankfully, the tone becomes more moderated, leaving room for the last-act hysterics. Staunton’s Martha displays a magnificent range of bitchery, from scalding sarcasm and withering mirthful wit to cuckolding cruelty when it comes time to bump and grind up against Nick (Treadaway, from the film of A Street Cat Named Bob and the original National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time).

Meanwhile, Hill’s George returns service with easy grace and unflappable dignity. The precision of his timing suggests not just hours of rehearsals in the real world before opening night, but that the marriage itself is a kind of performance — one where the two leads know their own lines and each other’s backwards. You can almost hear him purr with masochistic pleasure and pride when Martha delivers yet another well-drilled zinger back at him. When she says late in the game that he is the only man she ever loved, much to Nick's astonishment, it's completely understandable. These two "get" each other like no one else can.

As the hapless patsies lured into the lions’ den for the night, Treadaway and Poots hold their own and punch above their weight. Although her accent wanders from the prairie over to the East Coast and back, Poots, with her striking features and watchful air, is mesmerizing as the sozzled heiress more than a little disturbed than her polite prattling would suggest. Her howls of anguish in the last act are truly wrenching.

Nick has always been a less sympathetically written character with priggish superiority and amoral willingness to do anything to further his career, although, as Martha scathingly points out, upstairs in the bedroom he fails to live up to his ample "potential." Still, Treadaway, a very empathic performer, finds a way to make the character appealing here, if not actually likeable.

All in all, this is a damn near faultless production. If there’s a flaw, it's that there's perhaps just a little less gas in the tank by the time it gets to the final 20 minutes, by which point both the performers and audience are as exhausted as anyone would be at dawn after staying up all night witnessing such matrimonial carnage.

Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Cast: Imelda Staunton, Conleth Hill, Imogen Poots, Luke Treadaway
Director: James Macdonald
Playwright: Edward Albee
Set & costume designer: Tom Pye
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Music & sound designer: Adam Cork
Fight director: Bret Yount
Choreographer: Imogen Knight
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Tulchin Bartner Productions, in association with 1001 Nights Productions, Scott M. Delman, Rupert Gavin, Brian Zeilinger

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