In what could entirely reasonably be described as a soul-crushing, liver-destroying, marriage-terminating afterparty-from-hell, Martha (Imelda Staunton) and George (Conleth Hill) introduce two new acquaintances to their own special kind of purgatory. Honey (Imogen Poots) and Nick (Luke Treadaway), the latter a recent addition to the east-coast college faculty where George has failed to work his way up the History department ladder, find themselves thrust unwittingly into the older couple’s unceasing war of words in Edward Albee’s classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia a Woolf?
Directed by James MacDonald for the Harold Pinter Theatre (and broadcast in conjunction with National Theatre Live), it takes on the impending fall of civilisation one viciously barbed comment at a time and dares its audience to try and withstand the unrelenting psychological assault unleashed upon them by the spectacle of a violently crumbling marriage.
All the action takes place in George and Martha’s cluttered living room, which features a few pieces of depressingly brown furniture, stacks of books escaping from under the coffee table, and the all-important drinks cabinet. A corner lamp casts an orange glow over a large set of wind chimes, and the whole scene recalls a mercifully bygone American domestic interior from half a century ago. As noted by the host of this live broadcast, the set was designed to bring to mind a boxing ring, where indefatigable heavyweights go at each other in the centre, and retreat to the safe spaces around the periphery of the lounge when the blows start landing a bit too hard.
In this arena, Staunton and Hill launch at each other like seasoned fighters. Hill’s George, with his slumped shoulders and folded arms, is the quintessential put-upon husband — in fact, Staunton’s Martha spits that very descriptor at him at the exact moment this reviewer jots down the same word. The actor’s whole body seems to say, ‘This has been a long marriage, and there’s no end in sight’. He speaks in the loping cadence of a man used to repeating the same conversation every day, and only betrays his frustration when his clasped hands start fidgeting. Despite his initially docile appearance, of course, George turns out to be more than a match for Martha by the second half of the first act, and also doesn’t suffer too much youthful idiocy from Nick, who endures more than one piercing glare from the older man.
Staunton’s Martha is brash and confrontational, but never lacks the substantial counterweight of an unravelling psyche. The actor tears away the bandages and exposes the deep wounds beneath with a terrifying kind of vigour, whilst Martha body-slams into the other characters without so much as a second thought. When this faculty wife is on a roll, not even the sound of a wine bottle being smashed in anger can stop her — ‘I hope that was an empty bottle, George,’ Martha taunts before her verbal assault on everyone around her continues.
Staunton’s pleading monologue at the start of the third act, in which Martha’s painful unspooling threatens to take the entire audience down with her, is reason enough to buy a ticket to this play. Here is a woman defeated, hiding in a horrendous knitted coat and wiping old mascara out of her eyes as she fights familiar demons, and the heart-rending vulnerability of it all should be sufficient to make anyone wish their local cinema sold hard liquor.
Poots and Treadaway’s characters may be flyweights when compared to the two heavy-hitters whose ring they’ve invaded, but the damage they manage to inflict on each other is substantial. Treadaway’s insufferably confident Nick starts the night upright on the sofa, with his one leg crossed over the other in that preppy sort of way that would tempt even the most gracious of hosts to cough pointedly, and naïve, pitiful Honey eventually ends up level with the floorboards as Poots delivers a memorable slow-burning breakdown. The only real criticism to be levelled at these two concerns their accents, which seem to take a few dozen lines to settle geographically (though Treadaway plays so fast-and-loose with his character’s rhotic r’s that one would be hard-pressed to pinpoint his exact Midwestern roots).
As George tells an uncomprehending Honey whilst they watch their respective spouses wrap their arms around each other that ‘it’s a familiar dance; they both know it’, one is forced to reflect on the fact that George’s position as history professor probably allows him a superior perspective on the tactics employed in love and war. ‘George and Martha, sad sad sad,’ Honey chimes in repetition of Martha as the party degenerates further, and one can’t help but agree with that melancholy summary.
‘I’m running this show!’ cries George as the action threatens to overwhelm him. But is he? Is anyone? Earlier, as the same character read from The Decline of the West, one couldn’t help but marvel at how timely the current production of this 1962 play seems to be at this point in history where the world once again finds itself on the brink of war. ‘I am tryin’ to give you a survival kit here; ya get it?’ George asks young Nick in desperation. It is clear, however, that when faced with impending disaster, Nick is happy to avoid any kind of life-saving advice and will choose instead to plunge head-first into the abyss.
Ultimately, the audience is sent home after the final bell of the last round of the whole violent, brilliantly-acted spectacle with more questions than answers, but also with the lingering suspicion that Albee’s text has emerged as the victor and will continue to be a knock-out for many years to come.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be screened at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront as part of the current National Theatre Live season. Book tickets for the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th of July at www.sterkinekor.co.za.