Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee
Northern Stage and Sheffield Theatres co-production
Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
(2011)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? publicity photo

The collaboration between the two theatres has arisen from a similarity of approach by the two Artistic directors, Erica Whyman at Northern Stage and Daniel Evans at Sheffield Theatres. Each is committed to 'finding fresh ways to present modern classic plays, seeking out the greatest actors and encouraging audiences to take a risk with us' (programme note).

This revival of Virginia Woolf, which premiered on Broadway in 1962, is as fresh as paint and as pertinent as ever in its presentation of two troubled marriages and the strategies the couples employ to co-exist. While George and Martha's persistent and cruel verbal battles dominate the action, and Nick and Honey seem initially to have a good relationship, it gradually transpires that each marriage is sustained by a fantasy.

The play is beautifully structured, particularly the sequence of destructive 'party games' in the second half: Humiliate the Host; Get the Guests; Hump the Hostess; and Bring Up the Baby. As these titles suggest, the language of the play is vigorous, witty and amusing. George and Martha refer to their son as 'the little bugger'; Honey 'puffed up' and 'puffed down again'; and Nick is told that he's either a 'stud' or a 'houseboy'. As in earlier plays, like Zoo Story and The American Dream, Albee writes impressive narrative speeches. George's story of the boy who asked for 'burgin' is one of several.

Erica Whyman's production is clear, detailed and beautifully modulated. The moments of pathos are moving and stand out like shining islands in a sea of chaos. The large set (designed by Soutra Gilmour) sits well on the Crucible stage, and is a convincing representation of a shabby, booklined academic home. The costumes provide a splash of colour: Martha's two outfits give plenty of scope for aggressive and predatory movement; and Honey's canary yellow is as gauche and unsophisticated as her behaviour.

The play stands or falls on the performances of the principals, and here we have an exemplary cast. As a lean, blonde Martha, Sian Thomas dispels any memories of Elizabeth Taylor in the film version, and is hugely energetic, sexy, and suitably raucous when required, but also delivers a sensitive and moving tribute to her 'son' in the dying moments of the play. Her costume allows her to adopt a forward leaning, bum sticking out stance, which simultaneously suggests sexual availability and aggression.

By necessary contrast, Jasper Britton gives an understated but authoritative performance as George. He is splendid in his manipulative control of a bewildered Nick in the Get the Guest section; and later, pauses significantly, waiting for inspiration, before delivering the coup de grace to his 'son'. 'Where's the telegram?' says Martha. 'I ate it'.

John Hopkins as Nick, is entirely convincing as the stuffy, arrogant, amoral young husband, recently appointed to the Biology (or was it History?) department of the university. Much more than in Midsomer Murders, Hopkins successfully explores the complexity of the character, and, after a confusing and humiliating roller coaster ride, understands the nature of the 'death' he has witnessed.

My personal accolade goes to Lorna Beckett as Honey, in a part that might have been eclipsed by the power of the other performances. Beckett's Honey is defined by her giggle, part self-conscious, part immature, part hysterical. The audience loved this, finding it both amusing and deeply sad. The ghastly yellow frock came into its own in Beckett's free interpretation dance to classical music; and, of all the plangent moments in the play, nothing was more moving than Honey finding that her most private and secret experience had been betrayed.

There is more to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf than inter-personal relationships. As always with Albee money is important: what you can buy with it; what you have to give up for it. There is also cynicism about values in Higher Education; and more broadly for its time, and perhaps for ours, a society more concerned about the balance sheet than personal, or public integrity.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" continues at the Sheffield Crucible until 7 April and then transfers to Northern Stage, Newcastle, from 12th - 30th April.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production in Newcastle

Reviewer: Velda Harris