Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Shirley

06/11/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The Shirley of the title is, of course, Shirley Jackson, the much lauded author of short horror stories and novels, now back in the public consciousness after the recent success of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.

As portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, the author is a bundle of neuroses, afflicted by agoraphobia, alcoholism and a seeming inability to stop smoking for more than ten seconds at a time. It’s the 1960s and Jackson is living with her pompous and manipulative university lecturer husband, Stanley (Michael Stulhbarg, brilliantly insufferable). She’s also struggling to rediscover her writing mojo.

And then along comes Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), an aspiring junior professor and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young). Fred is seeking Stanley’s endorsement for a post at his college in Vermont and the young couple have been invited to live in the rambling family home. This initially seems appealing, but the upshot is that poor Rose finds herself cast as a kind of housekeeper, cooking meals and cleaning up around the place, while her husband throws himself headlong into the world of academia, (which seems to mean throwing himself at some of his young female students into the bargain.)

Rose also finds herself fascinated and disturbed in equal measure by Shirley’s writing, and it isn’t long before she’s become some kind of muse to the older woman. As their relationship deepens, it initiates changes in Rose’s persona and prompts her to look more deeply into the ‘based-on-true-life’ story that Shirley is currently working on…

This is a complex piece that takes its own sweet time to set out its stall and, in the process, it manages to create a convincing and suffocating world that is shot through with toxic domesticity. However, though it occasionally seems to hint at revelations hovering just out of our reach, it never seems to quite deliver them. This is a shame, but there are compensations, not least the performances, which are all accomplished.

Moss gets the showier role, portraying a character who can be as sweet as apple pie one moment and spitting venom the next, but it’s arguably Young who has the most difficult part, showing Rose’s gradual transition from a glamorous, passionate young woman into the twitchy, nervy receptacle of all of Shirley’s insecurities.

Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and adapted by Sarah Gubbins, the plot also seems to take a few liberties with the truth, but – when the main subject is a writer of fiction – perhaps this is excusable. In many ways, the film reminds me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, another story where an older university lecturer and his alcoholic wife leech all of the life out of a younger, more optimistic couple.

Shirley may not quite add up to a perfect movie, but its nonetheless worth your attention, if only to relish those fine performances.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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