EDWARD Albee’s 1962 masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, set in the home of college history teacher George and his wife Martha, daughter of the college founder, has lost none of its power in the more than 60 years since it was first staged.
It has been filmed (with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leading roles), and produced on numerous occasions. Martha provides a character on a theatrical par with Lady Macbeth, a challenging monster with a husband whose own role is equally demanding.
Lindsay Posner’s new production of the play, starring Elizabeth McGovern and Dougray Scott, opens the 2023 season at Bath’s Ustinov Studio with a bang, staging the devastating play in the claustrophobic intimacy of the Theatre Royal’s studio space, where the audience can almost feel the breath of the actors.
Set over five hours of alcohol and destruction, it is an after-party-drinks look at how George and Martha, experienced and eroded combatants, get to know the new biology teacher and his fragile wife. As the writer says, everyone plays games, and this is about the games people play.
Because Martha is a legendary monster, it is all too easy for the actress cast in the role to overplay, but there’s no room for that in the confines of the Ustinov, and Elizabeth McGovern, best known as Lady Cora in Downton Abbey, has found the pitch-perfect gateway to the character. She is loud and cruel and desperate and heartbreaking.
Dougray Scott, so often wasted in films that don’t call on his subtle, varied delivery, is a George of infinite patience. You never for one moment doubt their relationship.
Nick and Honey, an arrogant academic stud and his delicate wife, can be portrayed as no more than caricature props for the main event, but David Mamet specialist Posner, in his first Albee production, makes very sure that doesn’t happen. Charles Aitken and an inspired Gina Bramhill create a second convincing couple with their own demons and insecurities, and it brings a new balance to an extraordinary play which still has McGovern and Scott at its fulcrum, at the very height of their powers.
The Bath run continues to 11th February. A few tickets remain, and whether you are a Downton fan or a devotee of 20th century drama, sensationally performed, try to book one now.
Photographs by Johan Persson