The American Dream turned nightmare is endangered by cliché, and as for warring couples…. Edward Albee’s award-winning modern classic, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, ratchets up such elements to dangerous levels.
This new production from Liverpool’s artistic director Gemma Bodinetz begins outside the house of George and Martha, which in Francis O'Connor’s design, dramatically splits apart, ushering us in to ringside seats. Late, very late, the early hours, and they’re back from a faculty party hosted by Martha’s father. Daddy rules the roost, the college, while George is history, “an old bog” in said department. Some initial, almost cordial skirmishing, then their guests arrive, a new young couple. All set for a night of long knives and games of truth or dare.
Something in human nature may make us confide all sorts in complete strangers, but no matter how tired or drunk, people mostly retain some civilised veneer when only just introduced. Churlish Nick doesn’t quite ring true, though that’s no complaint about Nick Court’s excellent performance. And the flaw can be overlooked because - clever, frustrated, ambitious and callous - how easily he could pass for George and Martha’s son.
The older couple, more concerned with making an impression on each other than on others, resume and deepen their hostilities. Denise Black, flamboyant, larger than life, is partnered to the hilt by Ian Bartholomew, his mood adeptly switching from joviality to manipulation. Meanwhile, Honey’s excuse is immaturity. An infuriatingly fey child-woman who resorts to hysterics, this is perhaps the most difficult role, but it’s cunningly carried out by Kaye Wragge.
Albee investigates, and illustrates, some fascinating ideas: how anger protects us; passionate need; the irresistible power of victims. Which, in their iron-gloved delivery, seem as shockingly raw as they must have in the 1960s (the play premiered on Broadway, while the film version, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was released in 1966).
George and Nick, the biologist from a Brave New World, slug it out as belligerently as George and Martha. Nick is determined to keep Honey in her place; she snarls, suddenly as ferocious as the older woman. They all turn to drink, playacting and playground tactics: tall stories, vicious mimicry, delighting in scoring points and humiliation. A fight to the death, but the death of what?
There are but four basic emotions; considering the forcefulness of anger, fear and sorrow, what chance does love have? If you need to be reminded - and we all do - you should not miss Bodinetz’s cracking revival of Albee’s still vital play.
- Carole Baldock