The old saying is well and truly put to the test in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Words break the skin, and burrow beneath ‘all three layers, through the muscle, slosh aside the organs and get down to the bone’.
Set in the claustrophobic confines of an after-hours drinks party at an American college, the play begins with a middle-aged married couple, George and Martha, entertaining the young new professor and his wife. Fuelled by booze and bitterness, the older couple draw their guests into an increasingly twisted series of games in which illusion is just as devastating as truth.
Imelda Staunton is mesmerising as Martha. By far the smallest figure on stage, she dominates the entire theatre for more than three hours, provoking and gibing in torrents, fearless. She delivers guttural screams with an intensity that hurts, and every laugh is followed up with a menacing echo.
Most impressive at all, Staunton embodies the full force of Martha’s masochism without undermining the vulnerability that motivates it. Her late monologue about the husband – who has ‘made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving… me, and must be punished for it’ – is the most conflicted and moving moment we’ve seen on stage in a long while.
Conleth Hill is a fine foil as passive-aggressive George. He plays on the beleaguered husband trope, maintaining an unsettlingly measured demeanour while engineering illusions to maximise suffering, boring deep into the marrow.
Together, George and Martha have smug young Professor Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his chipper wife Honey (Imogen Poots) embarrassed, then cornered, caught in the crossfire of a series of emotional games. Lurid sexual suggestions, stories of violence and bitingly personal betrayals escalate from uneasy humour to outright hysteria.
For all the oddity of the hosts’ behaviour, perhaps the strangest thing is that Nick and Honey don’t just leave.
But, of course, that is the real, palpable horror of the situation: it draws you in, consumes you. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a long, exhausting, even traumatic watch, and this production feels as if the emotional violence is constantly unravelling anew.
The audience becomes the guests, transfixed by a grotesque situation, bombarded with bitterness we can never make sense of, yet unable to detach ourselves. Drama at its most compelling and intense.
|What||Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Harold Pinter Theatre review|
|Where||Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London, SW1Y 4DN | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Piccadilly Circus (underground)|
22 Feb 17 – 27 May 17, Matinee performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays; no shows on Sundays
|Price||£10 – £90|
|Website||Click here to book via Culture Whisper and See Tickets|