Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

It must be Edward Albee year around the Haymarket area of London, with both The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and this play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, running in high profile revivals within a few yards of each other.

This is by far the better known of the two plays, perhaps due to the 1966 film featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha, and it is wearing its years well, with its cat and mouse domestic power games and the young guests trapped like rabbits in headlights, appalled but almost unable to get up and leave.

In this production Imelda Staunton plays Martha, a sarcastic, gin-swilling, braying, frustrated, pathetic shadow of the girl she must have been during the war years in which George courted her.  Now she – as she admits in one revelatory moment – repels his kindness, attention and love with insults, clawing, and hatred.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Conleth Hill is absolutely superb as George, who has been squashed and silenced for so long that the bitterness has grown and simmered under a sad surface.  He’s a man who perhaps once had ambition to lead and rule, but the years have got to him.  Six years younger than Martha, he looks fifteen years older, with a careworn air and a resignation to the life fate has dealt him.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Into their gameplay come a young biologist who has recently joined the college, a blond muscleman who has a clear career trajectory and a healthy dose of contempt for those around him, and his mousy wife who drinks to mask her unhappiness at being unable to conceive or cope with the social demands of her world.  Luke Treadaway plays the young blade Nick who is played to perfection by the older couple as they have done so many times before; while Imogen Poots is tragically wan as his constantly upchucking wife, Honey, who has a love for brandy which might yet turn her into a Martha.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

This is a wordy play, but one in which each word has weight and meaning, and the full effect is one of an emotional rollercoaster by the end of act three.  Starting as something of a black comedy, there are laughs to be found through the earlier scenes (trying to identify a Bette Davis movie) which quickly turn into something much more uncomfortable with the arrival of the guests and the games people play.  There was mainly pin-drop silence in the final scenes, which were beautifully done.

This is a sensational revival full of screams, shouts, spittle, smoking, sadness and occasional silence.  James Macdonald directs with a sense of space and occasion, with the one living room set and a number of off-set locations (upstairs, the downstairs cloakroom, the kitchen).  The language has perhaps been a little ripened since the original (the opening salvo to the young couple of ‘screw you’ has become rather stronger) but the meat of the piece is there.

I saw this from the front row so every nuance of gesture, reaction, or interaction was captured, giving the feeling that we were almost additional trapped guests ourselves.  As an honest depiction of two marriages this play gives us much food for thought, conjuring up images of the youthful George and Martha before life and circumstance trapped them, and a vision into the future to what awaits Nick and Honey.

Be quick if you want to see this as final performances are on Saturday 27th May.

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About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, editor, creative. Blogger since 2011. View all posts by Louise Penn

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