Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece was denied a Pulitzer because some of the award’s directors were reluctant to laud such a “dirty play”. Yet it is this very quality that keeps Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fresh to the jaded, contemporary sensibility.
George (Denis Conway) and Martha (Fiona Shaw) may not shock as much as they used to, but the sharpness of their exchanges, their teetering hysteria, their pent-up range, their fraying uselessly against the restraints of middle-aged life: All that is easily recognisable; and it’s a credit to director David Grindley that this production is so alive to that, without decontextualising the world of the play.
We first meet the couple at 2am, crashing drunk into the living room of their New England college-town home. “What a dump!” cries Martha. But it’s really not. It’s beautifully detailed in Jonathan Fensom’s set, which is enveloped on a shrunken stage in the proportions of a cinema screen, as if we are peering in through a huge letterbox.
Soon they are joined by their “guests”: Nick, a young star of the biology department (George is a historian in a rut), and his wife, Honey. We’re only in the middle of a very long night, to be played out over three engrossing, agonising, booze-filled hours of mental torture, absurdity, simmering sexuality, and bitter recrimination. Catharsis? Resolution? We get those too. Possibly. But along the way, it’s a riot.
The exquisite rhythm of Albee’s language is still a marvel. His paradoxes and wit are Wildean, but more lacerating, battered and caustic, as if that’s the only way humour could have survived, in the wake of the horrors that came in the 62 years after Wilde’s death.
Conway, with superb timing, and a coiled cat-like Bell give as good as they get as the warring couple, ably supported by Mark Huberman and Sophie Robinson.
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