The rhetorical question posed by the title of Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is answered -- as defiantly as it is definitively -- on the London stage right now: not Kathleen Turner, that’s who. In a blazingly fearless, selfless performance, recreating a role she first played on Broadway last year, she goes for broke and more in this most morbidly funny and endlessly fascinating play of marital meltdown. She may have had young Benjamin for romantic mincemeat in her London stage debut as Mrs Robinson five years ago in the stage version of The Graduate, but this time the stakes are even higher.
As Martha, the fiercely unhappy wife of a disappointingly unambitious lecturer George (Bill Irwin), six years her junior and working in the history department at a university of which her father is President, she puts both her twenty-three year marriage through the wringer and draws the newly-wed couple of 28-year-old Nick (David Harbour), newly arrived in the biology department, and his “mouse who is a wife-y type”, 26-year-old Honey (Mireille Enos), into a poisonous long night’s journey into the hell of their relationship, and the desperate, dreadful games that she and her husband play with each other to sustain what’s left of it.
It’s a grim spectacle, but also – under Anthony Page’s direction that orchestrates it like a dark symphony – one that teases out every nuance of its bitter humour. Albee’s script offers a relentless barrage of rancorous, spitfire insults; but though it could eventually pall, it never does here because of the undertow of desperate truth and humanity that Turner and Irwin bring to their verbal (and occasionally physical) sparring; and the younger couple of Harbour and Enos are no less powerful in the fissures that are quickly exposed in their own marriage.
While Albee has been fiercely protective of his play in the US, where this was only the second-ever revival on Broadway in the 43 years since it was originally staged there, we are rather more familiar with it over here: this is the fourth production I’ve seen the play in London since beginning my theatregoing life here twenty-five years ago. I’ve seen it at the National (briefly starring Joan Plowright – she only did previews, before being replaced by Margaret Tyzack -- opposite the late Paul Eddington), Young Vic (Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Stewart) and Almeida (Diana Rigg, David Suchet); but this version brings an authentically American atmosphere to it that makes it both funnier and more terrifying than I have previously experienced it. Everything about it feels totally inhabited, not least John Lee Beatty’s splendid wood-panelled living room setting.
This may be about the marital row to end all marital rows; but this is also the production to end all productions. It bodes thrillingly well for the Apollo’s new owners Nimax – Nica Burns and Max Weizenhoffer – whose first own co-production with a consortium of other producers this is.