Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (screening) at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Guest review by Edward Learman

“I’m not drunk enough to figure it out yet.” – George

There are many great lines in Edward Albee’s classic play about alcoholism, marriage and the failure of American virtues. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains both a portrait of an era and one that has a truly timeless and universal appeal for audiences across the world.

The play is currently being performed at the Harold Pinter Theatre, and I was able to see a live screening at my local theatre, Thornden Hall. The venue is a 388-seat auditorium with a state-of-the-art sound system and digital facilities located on the Thornden School’s grounds, with the purpose of supporting the Performing Arts and Education in Eastleigh and Chandlers Ford. This is the first time I had visited the site, and I was impressed with the service, the speed at which I was given my ticket, but especially with their selection of beers, which were surprisingly cheap compared to most venues. For this event the middle rows were almost completely filled, so the venue must’ve sold at least 200 tickets.

It’s my personal theory that no performance of Albee’s play should be watched without being inebriated; this is to fully appreciate the nauseating maelstrom of hissing put-downs and devastating one-liners as the two couples go at it, engaging themselves in verbal sparring contest, cutting each other to the bone.

“Fun” is not exactly the word I would use to describe Albee’s play, unless by fun you mean some sort of psychological game in which all your darkest fears and skeletons are resurrected to be paraded for the horrible amusement of the younger guests, who aren’t quite sure what’s going on or why they can’t just leave. “I don’t mind self-flagellation as long as it’s done right,” Nick (Luke Treadaway), the young and handsome academic, quips as he attempts to find a common ground with George (Conleth Hill), the older, once aspiring history professor, who is appalled by the young man’s naivety and his wife Martha’s (Imelda Staunton) reasons for inviting him into their home.

There are many layers and twists to the play, and this allows the actors to explore the depths of their characters, wear many masks, and to flip from passiveness to anger to humour to pain to despair to insanity and then back to smiling indifference again. Like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it’s a real spectacle of drama and a masterful piece of staging where it seems as if Albee has challenged himself by asking: “How far can I push this?” It’s strange to think that when the play opened in 1962, the judges for the Pulitzer Prize chose not to have an award that year rather than give it to Albee, for they’d objected to use of profanity.

Interestingly, when I’d first come across the play as a teenager after watching Mike Nichol’s 1966 film adaptation, I couldn’t quite imagine Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, despite their incredible performances, using language like “F*** you, motherf***er!” I suppose no one would expect their parents to say this, even during a blazing row.

And how does this cast fare against the one with two of the greatest film stars of the 1960s? Well, I wasn’t quite sure how the two-hour film, which is basically just one long argument, could possibly be performed on stage. For the film version, visually there were room changes and moments where the characters could take a breather. But here the director James Macdonald, who like Nichols is a veteran of the theatre (previous works include Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill and David Mamet among others), chooses to restrict the action and drama to a single room, with one or two dialogue scenes kept intact in contrast to the adapted film version.

Critics have described MacDonald’s version as the “funniest and most high-energy version ever”; I don’t disagree with this since during the entire three-hour production there doesn’t appear to be a single quiet moment, except during the two brief intermissions. Quite how the cast, which boasts seasoned stage and screen actors Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones), Imelda Staunton (Gypsy) and Luke Treadaway (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and West End newcomer Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later), have managed to give such gut-wrenching performances since February just amazes me. But especially Staunton, who simultaneously channels Elizabeth Taylor’s spirit whilst bringing a sensitivity to the character which I never thought was there, and which moved many in the audience to tears, including myself.

Staunton’s performance as Martha reminded me of Heath Ledger’s scene-stealing role as The Joker in The Dark Knight  a part which any intelligent actor or critic would look upon as a monumental challenge after another great actor, in that case Jack Nicholson, had already made it iconic. Like Ledger, Staunton succeeds in the same way, which is to simply play the character slightly differently, and although at certain times, I felt I was watching Taylor and Burton, which was astonishing, here the actors can physically utilise the stage space, enhance their performances and somehow make the characters more three-dimensional. Staunton also screams louder than any actor or actress I’d ever seen in any live performance, and again, I can’t quite believe how she manages to give such an electrifying performance night after night.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27th May. For details of future events at Thornden Hall, visit http://www.thorndenhall.co.uk/.

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