By Edward Albee
“Between the motion and the act falls the shadow”, as T.S. Eliot once said about something entirely different. But the phrase can easily apply to any modern stage production of Edward Albee’s best-known play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, because of the great shadow cast by Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s seminal performances in the 1966 film.
There are hints of Burton’s thrilling vocal cadences in Andrew McFarlane’s portrayal of George, but his is by no means a copy-cat performance. Seemingly subdued and more accepting than Burton of his role as Martha’s fall-guy, McFarlane’s George has sinister undertones, making his unexpected vituperations even more dramatic. And when his final revenge comes, as we know when and how it will, the tension in the audience was as palpable as their divided loyalties.
Andrea Moor as George’s wife Martha, her seductive figure erotically draped in vampish scarlet, managed to avoid the danger of overplaying this edgy role. It would be so easy to make Martha vitriol incarnate, but Moor allows a hint of Martha’s vulnerability to show through from the very beginning, making it clear that her near-hysteria is as much a result of existential angst as it is of bitterness combined with an alcohol dependence that these days would have her institutionalised. Do Americans still drink like this, I wonder – straight spirits on the rocks for hours on end, but never quite reaching brain death?
The story, briefly, for those dozen people in the western world who don’t know it, is about Martha, daughter of the president of a private college, and married to history professor George, an academic as well as a social failure. They loathe and despise each other (or do they?), but play sado-masochist games which keep their mutually abusive marriage together, including a private fantasy about the child they never had.
The games people play are often incomprehensible to outsiders, but many of us have a shell behind which we can retreat to give our lives meaning. If this marriage is dead, then it’s kept on its feet by an elaborately-structured charade which could well be called “Hide-the-Skeleton”.
The first crack in this fragile structure comes when Martha, after a college welcome party for new staff, invites newly-appointed biology lecturer Nick and his aptly-named wife Honey back to the house for a few drinks, implicitly to become the audience for the brittle charade that is George and Martha’s marriage. George can see the inherent dangers, but Martha insists, in spite of his threats and warnings, and we immediately know that there’ll be tears before bedtime.
What happens is as devastating today as it was when the play was first performed 45 years ago, and no matter how well you think you know it, this latest production is a must-see, simply because it’s as good as any I’ve ever seen. It’s flawlessly cast – Kerith Atkinson catches the essence of neurotic campus wife to perfection (the action takes place in the early 1960s, before feminism) as her irritating baby mannerisms turn vicious under the influence of a full bottle of brandy; and Scott Johnson skilfully allows at least eight bourbons-on-the-rocks to reveal the ambitious brute behind the polite young junior lecturer.
The play is about so many things – the battle between the sexes, between the generations; the anguish of the hollow men and women of the 1960s that wasn’t really unique to that generation; the futility of ambition in the face of failure and, to quote English poet Philip Larkin, writing in the same period, the fact that “Man hands on misery to man; it deepens like a coastal shelf.”
Larkin’s advice is to “get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself”, and the reason he sprang immediately to mind when I saw this play again was the theme of the missing child, imagined or real. Would either of these couple have been happier, different, more at peace had they had real children?
It’s an idle speculation, for it’s the missing child that gives this play its shape and meaning, and Michael Gow’s direction has brought out the point more strongly than in any other production I’ve seen.
Another good thing about this production is Gow’s decision not to use American accents. All the characters speak in a kind of trans-Atlantic English, although Scott Johnson at his most bibulous becomes the full Ocker bully-boy yob – but even that adds a deeper resonance to the play, proving that it can rise beyond its specific cultural genesis. I liked the way also that Gow played much of it for laughs, like Shakespeare knowing that dramatic tension is often increased by a change in pace.
A narrow set, its papered walls ever-so-slightly clashing with the rich carpet, echoes the idea that everything is out-of-kilter as well as slightly claustrophobic, and the deeply raked stage is a clear metaphor for the precarious metaphysical situation of the characters.
I saw it on the second night, which is usually a down-time for actors after the adrenalin of opening night with its bevy of critics and other free-loaders whom they hope will spread the good word. But it was so pacey, so wrought with emotion and raw energy, that I was even more impressed than I thought I would be.
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf is an excoriating play, laying bare the layers of human pain to an almost intolerable degree. See it at your peril, but see it you must. Because at the deepest level it’s about the human need for love, and what we will do to find and keep it.
Director: Michael Gow
Designer: Robert Kemp
Lighting design: Jo Currey
Playing until Saturday 3 November 2007- Monday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday pm, Saturday 2pm
Duration : 3 hours 15 minutes, with one interval