EDWARD Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is widely regarded as one of the very finest American plays of the 20th century, thrust onto the international scene four years later when the golden couple of the time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, starred in the multi award winning film of the play.
Claustrophobically set over the hours from 2am to dawn in the home of university lecturer George and his wife Martha, on the campus of a small college in New England, the four-hander charts the flaying of at least one marriage.
After a party given by Martha’s college principal father, new biology lecturer Nick and his brittle wife Honey are invited back for more drinks. But the welcome gesture quickly turns nasty.
This summer’s season at Bath Theatre Royal opens with Adrian Noble’s electrifying new production of Albee’s defining play, performed with heartbreaking intensity by Clare Higgins and Tim Pigott-Smith.
There is no denying that this is a hard play, and what laughs there are are quickly followed by painful reality.
Pigott-Smith’s George may be less starrily charismatic than Burton’s, but he brings a new poignancy to the role of the man trapped by circumstance in a life whose frustrations and disappointments are now bounded by the bottle and perpetual re-enactments of pain.
To play Martha an actress needs to throw away all physical restraint (something the glamorous Taylor did shockingly), and Clare Higgins is simply magnificent in this frighteningly exposed performance.
Nathan Wiles and Iris Roberts, as unsuspecting stooges Nick and Honey, falter clumsily on this well-trodden path though Martha and George’s marriage.
It is the enduring power of the relationship that comes as a shock in this reading, perhaps something you can only appreciate with age and experience.
This mesmerising and compassionate production is on stage at Bath until Saturday 5th July.
Photographs Nobby Clark