If we look at the current programming at Sheffield Theatres, there seems to be a regular theme of very strongly cast 20th century classics. David Hare’s Racing Demon, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days and Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, very different in style as they are, all come into that category. And Sian Thomas, who plays Martha in the Crucible production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has no doubt that Edward Albee’s play is worthy of that status.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of the iconic plays of the 1960s, first staged in 1962 and filmed in 1966 with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor whose tempestuous marriage seemed well suited to Albee’s searing depiction of the home life of George, a history professor in a New England college, and his alcoholic wife Martha. So how relevant is the play, now astonishingly nearly 50 years old, to 2011? Sian finds the essential drama, the relationships, the humour, as relevant today as in 1962, but concedes that one aspect of the situation has dated:

“Part of Martha’s problem is the situation she’s in. In 1962 women didn’t have the same rights as men. Nowadays Martha would have less excuse for behaving as she does. Part of her problem is that nobody’s bothered to help her: she can’t get a job and she’s intelligent, but not educated. Daddy’s president of the college, but he’s never said, ‘Come on, let’s make a human being out of you’. As a result she’s dissipated her energies on drink, socialising and getting married.

“She’s a strange mixture of selfishness and a kind of masochism – she hates herself. Her saving grace is that she’s so funny. That helps to keep her and George together – I think they still love each other, even though it’s all gone horribly wrong. They have fun and, when they’re not having fun, it’s hell – there’s no even middle ground. She has to be the centre of attention so she invents games. It’s her monstrous ego. In a wonderful speech near the end she acknowledges what George has done for her. It’s a complicated thing, seeing what he is, yet punishing him. ‘He makes the mistake of loving me and must be punished for it.’ She hates herself, but she has relish for life, she’s not mean.”

In passing Sian makes the point that, having played Lady Macbeth recently at the RSC, she is constantly finds echoes of her in Martha, but Martha’s more fun!

If you look at Sian Thomas’ CV, you will find healthy doses of Shakespeare and other English classics at the National and the RSC, but in conversation her love for the great American playwrights of the past 70 or so years is palpable: Tennessee Williams (whose shares a centenary with Terence Rattigan this year), Arthur Miller and the youngest of them, Edward Albee. When I mention that coincidentally the most highly regarded plays by both Miller and Albee tended to come early in their careers, she adds Williams to the list and suggests they may have been outsiders in their own country:

“Miller’s always been well regarded here, but not always in his own land – and the same with Tennessee Williams who suffered very much towards the end and wrote all his great plays comparatively early in his career. Two years ago I was in the last good – not great – play he wrote, Small Craft Warnings, at the Arcola Theatre in the East End.”

Sian also appeared in the finest of Miller’s later plays, The Price, in 2003, in a production with a wonderful performance (we both agree) from Warren Mitchell, where Sian’s performance as Esther (together with her role in the very different Up for Grabs) secured her a whatsonstage.com Best Actress award. But Albee has figured larger than either Miller or Williams in her acting career:

Edward Albee is a legend, but he’s still alive! He still has firm control, he had to vet all of us in the cast. I got to meet him 14 years ago when I worked on A Delicate Balance. He was very nice to me. I was the youngest, less well known than all the others, and he was very tender."

“That was amazing – what a cast! Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Annette Crosbie and me – those were the women! I was the younger generation, the daughter Julia. She comes on like a whirlwind – the others talk about her a lot, then she finally appears!

“I did The Goat last year – I never saw it in London and it seems so silly – a man falls in love with a goat, but, when I read it, I thought ‘Brilliant!’. We did it in Edinburgh at the Traverse with a wonderful director Dominic Hill. Albee has this ability to mix comedy and tragedy together in the most amazing way so you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In The Goat they’re mirrored – it’s almost as if they’re simultaneous – but here in Virginia Woolf it starts quite funny, then descends into the dark depths. I love the way he plays with all the genres.”

Paradoxically Sian constantly stresses the pain to be found in the play (and actually says at one point, “You have to be brave to play Martha”), but comes in beaming, saying what a wonderful time she’s having halfway through rehearsals. This obviously has to do with her love of the play, the congeniality of the company and her respect for the venue:

“When you’re doing something so serious and meaty and complex, you have to be able to laugh as well. You can get further quicker if you can enjoy yourself and laugh during the breaks. Jasper Britton who’s playing George is a good friend – we’ve worked together before, so we have an understanding, and he’s just brilliant.

“The youngsters are very good, too (John Hopkins and Lorna Beckett as Nick and Honey). Their characters are a device to reveal George and Martha, but also a story in their own right – nothing’s wasted with Albee. They have to be there because George and Martha need an audience, but they are more than that. I love the way director Erica Whyman is working – she’s giving everyone a say. It’s not a play about George and Martha, but about four people. The ‘tots’, as George calls them, are already wonderful, very amusing, very brave. There’s a nice chemistry within the cast.”

Sian has not appeared at the Crucible since the 1980s, the Clare Venables era, when she played Ophelia to Michael Muller’s Hamlet and also appeared in a forgotten Howard Barker play, A Passion in Six Days, about a Labour Party conference, which she found taxing in two ways:

“I had not only to sing which I found a bit scary, but I had to take all my clothes off. I’ve been completely naked on that stage.”

We laugh at the thought that she is about to be stripped naked again on the Crucible stage, but this time metaphorically and emotionally!

Ron Simpson

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays Sheffield Crucible from March 16th to April 7th and Northern Stage, Newcastle, from April 12th to 30th.