Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

18/05/17

Edward Albee’s 1962 play was famously adapted as a movie in 1966, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The role of Martha is widely considered Taylor’s best onscreen performance, so it’s a tough act to follow – and perhaps, on paper, Imelda Staunton is an unlikely candidate for the role. But never underestimate her. She is an absolute revelation in this National Theatre production, beamed out live to cinemas across the UK. These screenings are a wonderful (and more affordable) way for people outside London to gain access to the very best of theatre.

George (Conleth Hill, best known for Game of Thrones) is an associate Professor of History at an American University, a man who feels that he hasn’t really achieved his life’s ambitions. This belief is constantly reinforced by his hard-drinking wife, Martha (Staunton), who seems to delight in reminding him of his failures at every given opportunity. The events of this three hour play unfold over one night, after a party at the faculty. George and Martha are already well-oiled when they arrive home and George is dismayed to discover that Martha has invited a young couple back ‘for drinks.’ They are a young biology professor, Nick (a barely recognisable Luke Treadaway) and his ditzy wife, Honey (Imogen Poots). Given the gladiatorial nature of the host couple’s conversation before the guests arrive, it’s clear that we are in for a bumpy ride… and as the drinks flow and inhibitions are increasingly broken down, the deepest secrets of everyone present are pulled out and ripped to shreds.

This is an incendiary, vitriolic drama, often wickedly funny but ultimately heart-breaking. Staunton’s extraordinary performance is perfectly matched by Hill’s dry, acerbic turn as George; indeed many of the play’s funniest moments are his, most tellingly the scene where he immerses himself in a favourite history book, while Martha and Nick cavort unabashedly just behind him. The other two actors may have somewhat less to do, but they make the most of what they’ve been given.

It’s a while since I’ve seen this performed and I was astonished at the similarities between this and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, which came along more than a decade later. In both plays, an ambitious male character is pushed to the very age by an unforgiving wife. In both plays, we laugh at the resulting humiliation, only to have that laughter snatched away by the misery of the conclusion.

This was a one night only screening, so if you really want to see this show, you’ll need to head down to ‘that London’ where it’s currently showing  at the Harold Pinter theatre.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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