EDWARD Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf crashed onto the theatre scene almost 60 years ago, dividing critics and audiences. Since then it has become a classic of American theatre, perhaps best known as the five-Oscar 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as well as a regular academic text.
It is set in the early hours of a post-party morning in the home of George and Martha, on the campus of a small New England university. Martha’s father, director of the private university, has organised a party to welcome Nick, the newest addition to the biology staff, and his fragile wife Honey. After several drinks too many, Martha has invited the couple back for more drinks.
George is horrified, but acquiescent. He knows that ritual games will ensue, and they will lead inevitably to humiliation and heartbreak. These are people practised in tearing each other apart, and Nick and Honey have no idea what they are letting themselves in for.
This is not the first time that the undistinguished George and his ever-critical wife have flayed their lives in public, but it will be the last. As the games progress, each more eviscerating than the last, the arrogant Nick and his frightened wife begin to understand the truth of the situation, but not before they have been inveigled into the fray.
The iconic status of the play, with Martha the Monster at its core, means that many productions centre on the older couple, leaving the newcomers as caricature stooges.
The balance achieved in David Mercatali’s production brings new insights to Albee’s familiar but still shocking text. There is never a moment when you don’t believe in these four exceptional actors, Pooky Quesnel and Mark Meadows, Francesca Henry and Joseph Tweedale. This is raw, heartbreaking emotion played out in the round in the intimate surroundings of the Tobacco Factory, not some manufactured ad-man’s dream of “reality” on television. It is too hard for many to take, without wanting to step in with their own options. As one member of the audience commented on her way out. “Why did he (George) have to do that. I could have hit him. He didn’t need to.”
Mark Meadows gives George an underlying kindness, which makes his purposeful cruelty all the more painful. Pooky Quesnel’s carefully paced performance allows Martha’s machinations to build up to their devastating climax.
Joseph Tweedale’s recklessly ambitious Nick gets his just desserts, and I have never seen Honey better captured than by Francesca Henry.
It’s an illuminating production of a play that is rightly a classic of its time, and well worth seeing, in Bristol until 21st March and then at Salisbury Playhouse from 26th March to 11th April.