Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre
The first major revival to grace these shores since Edward Albee’s death last year (in fact it was announced the week of the playwright’s passing), this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a masterclass in capital-A acting.
After a university shindig, new professor Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots, making her stage debut) head back to the home of George (Conleth Hill) and Martha (Imelda Staunton) for a nightcap – or 20. Little do they know they are stepping into a bear pit, a colosseum of matrimonial venom. Given that it was written 55 years ago, Woolf could provide a quaint insight into what once passed for shocking. But Albee’s script has lost none of its coal black wit in the interim; each line has the force of a cracked whip, lacerating speaker and spoken-to in equal measure.
As George Conleth, Hill is simply majestic. His entire body is hunched over from the weight of the chips he carries on his shoulders; add in his flop sweat and tucked-in tie and one had the perfect image of middle-class masculine failure. Yet this dogeared dust cover masks a far nastier narrative. George, master of the drinks cabinet, wields his secret power in brutal fashion, the deadly ice to his wife’s fire. Staunton’s Martha, meanwhile, is a raging bull, and George’s cruel impotence is her red rag. She is both the tyrant and the terrorised, a woman with an illness trapped in the vat of acid that is her marriage. Dressed in her Sandy from Grease armour in the first two acts Staunton is a dragon; cardiganed up the morning after and her fragility emerges under the sickly light of dawn.
In a less expansive production these towering performances may come at the detriment of the play’s other couple. However, the youngsters more than hold their own. There is a purifying passion to Martha and George’s hatred; Treadaway’s Nick, on the other hand, is an odious snake, smug despite being woefully out of depth in his hosts’ mind games. And while Poots isn’t given anywhere near as much to do as the others, the way her giggly giddiness curdles as the night progresses is very nicely done.
James Macdonald has presided over something truly draining; it’s likely that the audience will leave with the beginnings of a hangover, the director stretching out this after-hours soirée til it turns sweaty, and grubby, and smeared across the stage. One can’t imagine Albee’s legacy being better celebrated.
Photos: Johan Persson
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 9th March until 27th May 2017. Book your tickets here.