Monday 20 March 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (West End), or, A Visit with Our Worst Selves

Directors and writers often try to shock. But it's rare in my experience to encounter theatre which is truly shocking or unsettling. This is a such a play. It does it not with the kind of cheap shots of nudity and violence I've seen so often but with a dissection, through words and silence, of some of our worst capacities as human beings. Partnering this text with the superb production and ensemble seen here makes for an enormously powerful, if sometimes hard to watch, piece of theatre.

Edward Albee's play takes place in a small New England college town. The quartet of characters are an older history professor George (Conleth Hill) and his wife Martha (Imelda Staunton), daughter of the college President, and an ambitious young newly arrived biology professor Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots). At the beginning we're given the impression that George and Martha are your fairly standard, bickering, long-married couple, though already here the barbs being traded are very sharp. They've returned from a faculty party but, just as George is relaxing, Martha drops the first bombshell – for reasons that are never entirely explained Nick and Honey have been invited to continue the evening with them. The stage is set.

During the three acts which follow all veneer of civility, of concealment, is ripped away. We strip down, as the text late on puts it, to the bone and on to the marrow. The text can often be very funny – even in Act Three, there's a beautifully witty sequence as George and Martha argue whether the moon was still up or not. But, the wit only intermittently masks our terrible abilities to be cruel to each other, driven often by the fears and foibles we may try to conceal from ourselves but which here are mercilessly exposed. At times, for me, it was almost too close to the bone – Conleth Hill's oppressed George, shrunken, seemingly helpless, in corners (though it becomes clear this is not altogether so), wilting under Staunton's relentless attack, took me mentally back to places I try not to go.

The effect of the writing on me was at first to create a split – between my admiration for production (a flawless piece of work from director James MacDonald and his team) and performances, and my dislike of everybody on stage. But one of the qualities of Albee's piece is to know how to take the viewer past that. There is just enough of a kinder humanity lurking here and there in these people to keep the heart engaged. There's a similar marvellous balance in the writing with its ability to switch from barbed paired exchanges, to free for all, to stopping everything with a soliloquy that has the audience hanging, utterly still, on every word.

The play is perhaps, for me, finally just a little opaque in its treatment of motivations. I remained a bit puzzled about the exact truth of Act Three's revelation, and I did find it hard at times to work out why Treadaway and Poots don't just get up and walk out. But overall the piece has a terrible capacity to convince.

As already noted, the performances are uniformly superb. All of them have found that crucial ability to sustain character not just through text but in gesture, posture, expression and silence. For me, though, it was Conleth Hill's haunting George which will long stick in my mind. After a lacklustre start to my cultural year this revival will take some beating for my best play. Unmissable.

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