Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee
Liverpool Playhouse

Publicity image

History professor George and his wife Martha invite new colleague Nick and his wife Honey back to their place for drinks. And that’s it. That’s all the situation Edward Albee needs to dissect the American Dream with a ferocity that makes Death of a Salesman look starry eyed.

Director Gemma Bodinetz has apparently wanted to direct the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? since she began directing and it shows. She clearly knows the play upside down and loves it. One consequence of this is that she appears not to have cut a word; it’s here in all its buttock-numbing two hours 55 minutes. But it’s the better for it and it’s a brave decision in the face of modern theatrical tastes. Albee didn’t write the play to be cut, and in its full version the relentless destruction of Nick and Honey’s optimism, and the full exposure of George and Martha’s twisted relationship is allowed to build to a terrible climax.

Bodinetz has drawn towering performances from her two central actors: Ian Bartholemew’s George wonderfully captures the disappointment and frustration of a downtrodden and overlooked college professor, while Denise Black shows a genuine insight into the cruelty and vulnerability of Martha, and also displays the superb comic timing essential to the role. The vast bulk of the play (and there’s a lot of it) rests on these two, and they carry it with confidence.

Nick Court’s and Kaye Wragg’s Nick and Honey, given much less to do, still manage to epitomise the arrogance of youth, and also the capacity for emotional compromise and deception which George and Martha will so ruthlessly expose.

Francis O'Connor’s set design is excellent except for one puzzling decision; George and Martha live in upper middle class comfort, surrounded by the history books so central to George’s life, with the drinks cabinet so central to both their lives taking centre place, but for some reason O’Connor has elected to create an alcove on the far right of the stage, out of sight of anyone sitting in the far right of the auditorium, certainly of the Dress Circle, which is where I was sitting. While little happens in the alcove it’s still frustrating and the second act duologue between George and Honey does happen there. Not being able to see it spoils one of the pleasures of the play and a crucial dramatic moment.

The play makes much of history and biology. History and biology are what make us who we are and Albee’s play is a constant clash of the two as George and Martha play with history and memory to undermine and isolate each other and their guests. The play was originally written on the cusp of the 60s, debuting in 1962, and shows the clear influence of Existentialism. In places the play could be Sartre’s Huis Clos set in a University and the gender dynamics are lifted directly from de Beauvoir. George and Martha exist in a state of existential angst, each lovingly taking the blame for each other’s failures, each trying to give reason to each other’s fears. Interestingly the play also shows a clear understanding of Transactional Analysis, a very new and fashionable method of psychotherapy in the early 60s, George even calling his attempts to undermine his guests’ self-deceptions “games”.

What we have in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a towering classic of Western theatre, a play informed by the cutting edge philosophy and intellectual thought of its day, and a play written almost exactly at the point that the complacent self confidence of the 1950s United States tipped into the self-doubt and internal revolt of the 1960s. If you are lucky enough to see it I’d strongly recommend sitting on the left of the auditorium otherwise you won’t see the whole play, and be warned that despite the 7.30 start you won’t be leaving the theatre ‘til nearly 11pm, but it's worth it. Bodinetz has gathered an outstanding cast and guided them to a very fine production, a must see for anyone interested in theatre or the human condition.

"Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is at the Liverpool Playhouse until April 23rd.

Reviewer: Ged Quayle

Are you sure?