Matthew Kelly, Tracey Childs, Mark Farrelly, Louise Kempton
Edward Albee’s Tony award-winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may be 48 years old, but in the right pair of hands it can still pack a punch.
And in this production that ‘pair of hands’ comes in the form of the play’s two leads, Matthew Kelly and Tracey Childs.
The story focuses on the fraught marital relationship of George (Kelly), a failed academic at New Carthage College, and Martha (Childs), the daughter of the college’s president.
Set entirely in their living room one Saturday night (or, strictly speaking, Sunday morning) it reveals the incompatibility, but ultimate interdependence, of this couple.
George seems a weak figure, looking ten years older than he is and lacking the personality ever to head the Faculty of History. Conversely, Martha comes across as a floosie, determined to undermine George at every turn, even to the point of trying to sleep with their guest, Nick, just to spite him.
But as the night progresses, we learn that there is a strong, albeit perverse, bond between them. Martha admits that George is the only man she has ever truly loved, and that she does not deserve him. The couple are also used to playing psychological games, aimed at exposing the other’s failings, and Martha loves the fact that George learns how to play these games as quickly as she can invent them. Indeed, the final act reveals a game in which George manages to fox even Martha, suggesting that he is not necessarily subservient in this relationship.
Matthew Kelly successfully presents George as superficially grey, but fiery and malevolently cunning underneath. Despite the wide range of emotions that Kelly has to portray melancholic self-loathing, wilful indifference and aggressive hedonism there never feels anything forced about the way in which he frequently flits from one mood to another. In Kelly’s portrayal, Martha’s comment that just because George acts like a clown and walks with a hunch does not mean he lacks a vertebrae, rings very true.
Childs is equally impressive as Martha, a master in the art of stirring through seduction, and she and Kelly bring out a range of subtleties in the couple’s relationship. The play explores the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with both characters swearing that they will ‘finish’ the other. However, inherent within MAD is the idea that if both sides know that they can be destroyed, they will not seek to destroy. In this relationship, however, full understanding of the repercussions appears to act as an incentive to destroy the other, rather than a deterrent. Indeed, George pleads with Martha that, for her own sake, if she must sleep with Nick to do so ‘honestly’. To Martha, however, this would serve no purpose since her sole aim is to hurt George.
The compact nature of the smaller Trafalgar Studio contributes to the play’s pungent atmosphere as the events unfold so very close to our eyes. Jason Denvir’s set, depicting a 1960s bourgeois living room complete with tasteless wallpaper and chintzy drinks cabinet, also helps the evening along.
But the performances of Mark Farrelly and Louise Kempton as the second couple, Nick and Honey, are disappointing. This young college lecturer and his mousey wife spend the entire night with George and Martha, but with Farrelly doing little more than look the part, and Kempton failing to go beyond presenting Honey as a straight forward bimbo, we lose out on a lot.
Since we gain so little sense of their own designs and trouble-making instincts, it seems incredible why they should ever choose to subject themselves to this ghastly scenario and don’t simply walk away. Similarly, whilst George and Martha’s shenanigans are supposed to help reveal Nick and Honey’s own frailties and shortcomings, they come across as too weak in the first place for there to seem much that needs revealing.
Nevertheless, if, as a result, this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is unlikely to be ranking as one of the all-time greats, the actual performances of Kelly and Childs as the misunderstood couple may well do. These are still more than enough to merit a trip to the Trafalgar Studios to take in a classic play that, at the end of the day, it is impossible to see too many times.