EDWARD Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? remains one of most shocking dissections of the mechanics of marriage ever written, as challenging for audiences as it is for its quartet of actors.
Philip Turley has chosen the 1962 play for his latest production at Yeovil’s Swan Theatre, where it is on stage until Saturday 16th March. His cast is Sarah Easterbook and Richard Jones as Martha and George with Hugo Purdue and Kate Kirkpatrick as Nick and Honey.
Set in the early hours of a post-party morning at the home of George, a history teacher at a private college in New England, and his wife Martha, daughter of the founder and principal, it is fuelled with eye-watering quantities of alcohol and the remains of hope.
The play was famously filmed with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leading roles, and since then countless revivals have tempted the greatest actors on stage to make Martha and George their own.
The opening night at the Swan is always played for a charity audience. This one was the NHS Retirement Fellowship, many of whose members seemed eager to grasp the chance to laugh. There are not many such chances if you listen to the words.
George and Martha (who really is something of a monster, and is seen as the template for Beverley in Abigail’s Party) have evolved a complex series of games and stories around which they live their unhappy lives. A director must decide where he sees the balances of power and love.
The Swan company is amateur, but over decades has built up a well-deserved reputation for the professionalism of its presentations and the huge versatility of its members. The company performing the Albee play was an appetising prospect, and there are so many excellent moments in his production.
But it has one or two intrinsic problems, which it cannot overcome.
Sarah Easterbook has times – notably her soliloquy in the third act – at which she nails all Martha’s misery and torment. But there are other times when this monumental role seems out of her grasp.
Richard Jones, sadly the only one of the four who makes no real attempt at an American accent, brings a new aspect to George, presumably as the director intented. He lacks the gravitas and resignation, replacing it with a glib humour that diminishes the character. Both he and Sarah Easterbrook probably play too young for these familiar roles.
Their “guests”, new biology lecturer Nick and his fragile wife Honey, are vividly described. Nick is tall, dark and handsome, an academic prodigy and also a toned sportsman. His physical attributes are there in the script. Newcomer Hugo Purdue has all the preppyness and sharp wit needed, and the volatile reactions. But the sexual aggression and competitiveness that come from a sporting hero stud can’t be there.
It’s surprising when Honey, perhaps the most underwritten character, steals every scene she’s in. This is a barnstorming performance by another Swan newcomer, Kate Kirkpatrick. She is simply magnificent as she teases every nuance from Albee’s character.
This would be a very good amateur production of the play by most companies, but the Swan always goes deeper and expects more of itself. And it doesn’t quite work.