‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by May 4, 2017

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was written in 1962, by one of America’s foremost modern playwrights, Edward Albee. Edward Franklin Albee III died only 8 months ago, aged 88.

When two-weeks old, he was adopted by the wealthy son of Edward Franklin Albee II, owner of several vaudeville theatres. He was expelled from school several times for ‘laziness’.

At 18 he left home, as his parents did not regard his playwriting as a proper occupation; Albee then used this clashing relationship with his adopting mother, as the basis of some of his characters. Before long, he became an eminent university professor of English, and received numerous honours from countries as wide afield as Bulgaria.

This play won Albee a Tony Award for Best Play, and being ‘culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant’ was further selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. However, the play was too frank and controversial, so the Advisory Group voted against it, overruling the Awards Committee’s positive decision. Members left in protest and disgust at Albee being robbed of the prize.

The 1966 film of the play later won five Oscars.

Albee based Martha and George very heavily on two New York socialite friends. Right down to their drinking and explosive relationship. One can only wonder how Albee was not sued.

Although being briefly engaged to a debutante, he was openly gay with two, consecutive long-time partners. He asserted, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian, must be able to transcend self”, which he does wonderfully, with many of his plays being based around married couples and their sexual relationships. Being an ‘Absurdist’ author, like the playwrights Beckett and Ionesco, the dialogue of his plays was often described as biting.

All royalties from this play, ‘Virginia Woolf’, go to a foundation that Albee established.

The Darlington Theatre Players Inc. is presenting the admirable 2005 version. It is a three Act, two interval, three-hour play at the Marloo Theatre, 20 Marloo Road, Greenmount, on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at an earlier time of 7.30 pm, until Saturday 13th May. There is a Sunday matinée on the 30th April and the 7th May at 2.00 pm.

 

The scene is 1960 in the living room of a staff residence, on the Campus of New England College. The set designer, George Boyd, has yet again produced a stunning setting. The room shows the wealth of the couple, and the disorganisation and shambles of their lives. At the rear of the stage is a teak front door, with stained glass surround. This door opens onto a small raised area, with a staircase leading off. Down a couple of steps to the large, sunken sitting room, with two twin-seat settees, a brick fireplace, radiogram and numerous trimmings from the late 1950s. There is even a tubular chimes, doorbell. Wonderful props from Lesley Sutton and Ray Egan. The set indicated a huge amount of excellent work by George Boyd and his team Brendan Tobin, Michael Hart, Adrian Ashman, Duncan and Belinda Beatty.

The stage managers were George Boyd and Guy Jackson.

The sound design by Greg Rusha was a little trickier than first appears; good work by operator Belinda Beatty. The lighting design by Michael Hart was clever, the room being evenly but dimly lit with a soft pink glow and the seating area picked out by well-positioned floods.

 

       It is almost midnight when Martha (Alide Chaney) and her Associate Professor husband, George (Richard Hadler) stagger through their front door and head straight to the drinks cabinet. Martha, now in her 50s, has been spoilt by her rich father all of her life, and because Daddy is the University President she believes that everyone, including George, is there for her bidding.

      George is just starting to relax in his armchair, when Martha announces that she has invited a young couple around for a drink. George is dumfounded, and queries why she would want ask anyone around at such a late hour. The doorbell chimes and George discovers the reason; Nick (Cameron Leese) is a tall, young athletic looking man – a junior lecturer in biology – he is just the type that sex-starved Martha adores. Nick’s wife, is slender – but ‘no child bearing hips’ – giggly Honey (Krysia Wiechecki). It is not long before all four are swigging back the drinks, drop their guard and start to lose their inhibitions.

      Martha and George have a private agenda and routine, where they hurl scathing and caustic comments, without the visitors being fully aware of how much each remark hurts. Nick and Honey are embarrassed at first, but soon find themselves taunting each other too, as their personal and private lives are exposed. Fear not, Martha is there to console Nick.

         Will the guests leave early, or will they be drawn into the spider’s web and a terrible fate? After decades of marriage, do Martha and George really hate each other, or is there still an under stream of respect and love for each other?

 

Director, Brendan Tobin and his assistant director, Amanda Minutillo have really conquered the mood and meaning of this highly complex play. Although Albee has written a rich and multifaceted script, most film and stage directors feel that the whole show should simply be a shouting contest between Martha and George. In this production, Brendan has wisely slowed the pace so that every acerbic word can be heard clearly. The top-notch actors hardly raise their voices, but focus on giving a powerful, emotional delivery of the precise dialogue. The text often leaves the audience wondering what is ‘true’ and what may be a ‘fabricated illusion’.

With three hours of complicated, non-linear dialogue to learn, the task is horrendous. Each actor seems to be ignoring what the other is saying, in a desperate attempt to be seen as the one in charge. Martha is constantly trying to denigrate George, who has learnt to win by being pedantic to the extreme. Alide’s portrayed Martha with her heart and soul – you really felt her pain.

Richard is best known for his light-hearted parts, such as the pantomime ‘baddie’ and a larrikin in light comedies, but this play gives him a chance to show his superlative talents in a serious role. The cast worked particularly well, with Cameron starting as a cool, well organised man, who along with poor wife (Krysia),was systematically destroyed.

Lynda Stubbs’ hair styling matched the era perfectly – loved Honey’s flicked hairdo. Marjorie De Caux’s costume selection immediately informed the audience of the character’s personality; there was unkempt George, with his cardigan and suede shoes. Sloppy Martha, blossomed into a glamourous woman when muscular Nick arrived in his tightfitting shirt. Honey’s smart, aqua dress and matching coat were striking.

Do not be deterred by the length of this play; the production is gripping from the acrimonious beginning to the exorcism end. I thought that I knew and understood the story well until I saw this production, and suddenly the characters become lucid and the many hidden storylines fitted together to give an enthralling and satisfying evening. Superb direction and acting, a special play that should not be missed.

At the final curtain, you could see this amazing cast were totally drained by the mental demand from the script and the extreme emotional situations involved. However, the standing ovation must have been some consolation.