THE importance of Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was immediately recognised, and the film, made four years later, starred Hollywood’s hottest couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton two years into their first marriage, in the central parts of Martha and George. Since then, the roles have been performed by the world’s leading actors, and known for demanding a furious intensity that has not diminished over the decades of changing fashions and psychological approaches.
So it was quite an ask for Neil Howiantz and his cast from Strode Theatre Productions – all the more so in the usually festive run-up to Christmas. Performed in the intimate setting of the theatre’s studio, the action involves the audience even more closely than usual, and the four actors never let up for a nano-second as the story of George and Martha’s marriage is flayed, over the course of a drunken night.
Martha is the daughter of the founder of an exclusive East Coast college. George, six years her junior, is a professor of history. Nick, a prodigiously bright and sporty new biology teacher, brings his fragile wife Honey round for a post-party drink … at 2am. But Martha has her own idea of entertainment, and it centres on the well-honed ritual of humiliating her husband.
Just because the central roles are SO famous, there is a tendency to under-explore Nick and Honey, but here the director has resisted the temptation, giving Strode Theatre newcomer Will Vero and stalwart Eliane Morgan a chance to create much more than fill-in characters. I have never before felt any real affection between them, and it makes a big difference to the balance.
Karen Trevis, one of the area’s best known and most versatile actresses, gives a monumental performance as Martha. Never once does her face relax into a warm smile, and every attempt at humour is coated with misery-filled attack. She resists the provocation to over-play (yes, it IS possible to over-play Martha) and her breakdown is all the more painful for that.
Rob Prince, who has cut his teeth at Street with beautifully judged and timed light comedic performances, is a heartbreaking George, a man whose deep understanding of his bitterly unhappy wife always puts himself in second place. This is the first time in many performances I have seen of Albee’s play that I have FELT the helpless love these two damaged people have for each other.
It is a simply brilliant, deeply nuanced and perfectly judged performance of a timeless play.
It is on until Saturday.