Edward Albee’s bitter and volatile domestic tragicomedy is a quintessentially American play. So it’s good to see this masterful drama done with an American cast, as Antony Page’s emotionally overwhelming production reaches London direct from Broadway.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a play of dented dreams and damaged people. A late night drink between two college professors and their wives sounds like a rather civilised affair but as Martha and her husband George begin to fight in front of their guests, events are imbued with an acidic energy that infects all involved.
Set in George and Martha’s claustrophobic East Coast living room, the nature of the couple’s relationship quickly becomes evident; she drinks too much and won’t back away from a fight, welcomes them if anything. She attacks her husband where it hurts: his career, his manhood, she doesn’t relent.
Kathleen Turner is simply brilliant as Martha; she proves herself to be a magnificent stage actor, totally becoming the character. Her distinctive husky voice gives depth to Martha’s acerbic wit, her very presence is explosive. Turner clearly relishes the journey of Albee’s play and as the evening rolls on, the effects of so much emotional violence seems to take its toll on character and actor alike. After three hours Turner, and audience, are exhausted – but for all the right reasons. It’s a captivating, highly skilled performance – you have no choice but to get caught up in all she is going through.
As her husband George, Bill Irwin is less showy but equally magnificent, exuding a sense of menace throughout. Passive for most of the play, he brushes aside Martha’s cutting remarks, but Irwin constantly tempers this passivity by giving George a truly unnerving smile.
Who’s Afraid…? is more than just a battle of wits between a man and a woman, it’s about the battle that a marriage can become, and Irwin especially conveys this. George is strained, at the edge of breaking down, and for most of the play the audience is unsure of what he will do; when he points a shot-gun at Martha’s face it sends your nerves into overdrive.
This is however not just a two man show. In lesser hands the characters of the visiting Nick and Honey may have slipped into the background but Mireille Enos and David Harbour fight to make their presence on stage felt and they succeed. Harbour’s Nick is very testosterone-fuelled and ploughs through the first two acts like an elephant but by the end he too breaks down when forced to confront his own insecurities and issues. And Enos manages to gives Honey some real personality, grabbing some great laughs certainly, but also giving a complex account of the character’s frailty and resilience.
Albee’s play hasn’t dated, it remains a drama our times. This production fully captures its poignant representation of people and their sometimes uncontrollable emotions. Marriage may be shown as a constant battle for supremacy, but love is never overlooked; whether passionate and aggressive or sensual and tranquil, it is presented as an uncompromising force that can survive under the most straining of circumstances. For this reason and so many more, this play is a must see.