You don’t have to know who Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was, or the sort of works she published, but it helps, in order to reach a precise understanding as to why Edward Albee’s play was titled Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and more particularly anyone in the play just might be ‘afraid’ of what Virginia Woolf represents, an author who said in a lecture in May 1940, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
George (Conleth Hill) and Martha (Imelda Staunton), are an older couple, at least relative to their guests, Nick (Luke Treadaway) and Honey (Imogen Poots). George and Martha were apparently named by Albee after George and Martha Washington, the play itself being a possible allegory for the United States, or at least Albee’s view of it. The narrative unfolds over just one night, and this production is so intense and absorbing I found myself willing both the ‘interval’ of 15 minutes between Act 1 and Act 2 as well as the ‘pause’ of just five minutes between Act 2 and Act 3 to end.
It didn’t take long, mind you, for the ever-tense atmosphere to re-establish itself. Staunton’s Martha is a furious fireball, a volcano that keeps erupting, mostly in frustration at George’s resigned and world-weary approach to life. Not that George has ‘given up’ – he fights back in sarcastic manner that makes him almost British in this most American of plays. But whatever relentlessly sought after aspirations that are lacking in George are very much present in Nick, and Honey’s more relaxed perspective is, in turn, more endearing to George. What might be inevitable in a lesser complex and textured play than this one isn’t, and each of the characters, in their own way, have created illusions (or perhaps delusions) of their lives, presumably because the harsh reality of real life is unpalatable.
Poots’ Honey comes across at first as somewhat naïve and academically challenged, at least relative to the men in the room, a historian and a biologist, but as the night goes on, there’s more to her than being a mere deferential preacher’s daughter. I will say this for Poots: she puts in a masterclass performance in winging it when one is outside one’s comfort zone. Treadaway’s Nick, meanwhile, could well have been now where George was a generation ago – is the play suggesting that history has a tendency to repeat itself?
Despite some very dark themes, the script is laced with humour, though much of it is itself dark, but without it, the three-hour running time would have felt a lot longer. In this production, it doesn’t exactly whizz by, but neither does the action drag. What I found remarkable is that a play partly about an inability to articulate clearly actually communicates so much. It has the morals of one of those school assembly stories about telling the truth because lying leads to more lying and yet more lying with ever-increasing disastrous consequences – but, unlike those dreary assemblies of old, the only patronising nature to be found here is in the acid-tongued arguments and counter-arguments as the characters turn on each other. It’s a hoot.
In the early hours of the morning on the campus of an American college, Martha, much to her husband George’s displeasure, has invited the new professor Nick and his wife Honey to their home for some after-party drinks. As the alcohol flows and dawn approaches, the young couple are drawn into George and Martha’s toxic games until the evening reaches its climax in a moment of devastating truth-telling.
Harold Pinter Theatre
6 Panton Street, London, SW1Y 4DN
Recommended for 12+. Children under 5 years and babes in arms will strictly not be admitted.
Booking From: 22nd Feb 2017
Booking Until: 27th May 2017
Important Information: Contains strong language and adult themes.