Eliciting tears or chuckles from an audience is a challenge at the best of times, but the emotional manipulation of spectators becomes far more daunting with a play like this masterpiece from Edward Albee.
Pain counterbalanced by the most wayward, often brutal humour, and a constant awareness that behind the clowning and eccentricity there lurks a misery fuelled by desperation, combine to create unease in those witnessing the antics of two middle-class couples as they perform psychological arabesques for no apparent reason other than a need to escape inner demons.
With the dubious assistance of alcohol, George and Martha (whose names evoke those of America's first presidential couple) pass the time as best they can in the course of their faltering marriage, itself Albee's metaphor for the collapse of the Great American Dream, a failed Utopia.
Mindless bickering and indulgence in jaw-dropping spite are symptoms of an unnamed anguish that forms the vis dramatica of the work. The gradual emergence of the nature of this anguish keeps the audience intrigued to the (literally) bitter end as clothes, formality and inhibitions are shed.
Catalysts for the process of revelation are a younger couple, the husband a junior colleague of George's at the local university. Casually invited, not especially welcome, this anonymous couple have complications of their own...
In Sylvaine Strike's insightful reading of this play, a fine path is trodden between convention and originality. Before any persona has appeared, this is illustrated by the set for the action: a blandly conservative sitting room in which a trolley lavishly supplied with liquor is the most noticeable feature. Strike's signature staging is economical but stops short of minimalism. The opening theme music likewise is ironically evocative ("Somewhere over the Rainbow"): wistful, idealistic and unfulfilled.
Enter George (Alan Committie) and Martha (Robyn Scott), already the worse for wear after a faculty social. Scott excels in strident vulgarity, Committie is surly and subdued, and both speak with heavily exaggerated American accents. As the action evolves, these accents dwindle to become barely perceptible by the final act, a subtle touch by Strike to suggest that the couple's personal drama transcends externals like national identity. The point of the initial accent is merely to tie them to the socio-political aspect of Albee's work.
Once the younger couple (Sanda Shandu and Berenice Barbier) join the party, all the tensions build excruciatingly to erupt in erratic behaviour and the progressive baring of souls. Shandu and Barbier impress with their intelligent, sensitive portrayals of two complex individuals who complete the cast requisite for the drama's evolution.
Order, decorum and courtesy have no place here, and by the time we reach the dénouement, the characters, like the stage, are in a dishevelled state to mirror their inner turmoil.
Committie again proves that he is more than capable of tackling a serious role, his experience as a comedian invaluable in delivering Albee's cruel humour. Scott's generous personality makes her the ideal choice for the role of Martha: boisterously uninhibited and voluptuous. Barbier is a perfect foil to her as the angst-ridden, delicately built young wife; Shandu steals the show from his first entry with an enviable command of facial repertoire throughout the play's considerable duration.
Two intervals are perhaps necessary to give actors and audience some respite from the relentless drama, but they break concentration and so diminish the intensity of this experience. Other than that, this is another tour de force from Strike. Albee would have approved.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Director: Sylvaine Strike
Cast: Alan Committie, Robyn Scott, Sanda Shandu and Berenice Barbier
Venue: Theatre on the Bay, until 8 October 2022