If you’re in the mood for a darkly comic tale, then director James MacDonald might be able to help. There is an uncomfortable darkness that penetrates through his production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? From the acting and lighting, right through to the set design, Edward Albee’s landmark play is given a wonderfully brutal treatment by the acclaimed director. Throughout, there are moments when you wonder whether to laugh or cry. Come to its engrossing finale however, and you can’t help but applaud.
Set designer Tom Pye has created a rather formal and symmetrical set. During the second interval, MacDonald describes his intentions: it is made to resemble that of a boxing ring. And there are two heavyweights of the acting world facing off against each other. In one corner, Imelda Staunton plays the drink-fuelled and imposing Martha. Facing her is worthy opponent Conleth Hill, playing her difficult and condescending husband, George. Together, they harbour a wealth of anger and toxicity. Driven by Albee’s exquisite script, no line is wasted; every piece of dialogue lands a punch. It is deathly biting.
The set also feels like a domestic sitcom. All the familiar décor appears to be here: the centrality of the sofa; the obligatory bookcase and table-top lamp; the white-shuttered doors; and stairs in the background. Here though, there is also the addition of the drinks trolley, an important trope throughout the course of the play. Albee’s work is no Father Knows Best. Shows like this, depicting the perfect American family and upholding societal expectations, are in stark contrast to the 1950s image evoked here. Instead, we have a tragi-comic depiction of a desperate couple in utter meltdown. Yet their refusal to face up to their emotional turmoil means that we are treated to some sharp and bitter interchanges, not only between Martha and George but their two guests, Nick and Honey. Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots are wonderful as the young, archetypal lovebirds who, slowly and agonisingly, are subjected to the vitriol of their hosts, succumbing to a few painful truths of their own. As dark as these truths get however, MacDonald has directed it in such a way as to colour it with humour. The physicality of his cast and the delivery of their dialogue do a lot to evoke laughter from the audience. Sometimes it is nervous, sometimes universal. It is the measure of Albee’s work that it touches on something within us that can be both profoundly relatable and worryingly uncomfortable.
Poots puts in a wonderful performance as the endearingly sweet and naïve Honey. She provides plenty of charmingly innocent humour which nicely offsets against the more poison-filled wit of Martha and George. Treadaway gives an accomplished performance as her other half, Nick. Thankfully, he doesn’t go too far in his portrayal of the obnoxious biology professor. He’s not quite so annoying that you want to get into the ring and punch him yourself. Staunton is wonderful as Martha: abrasive, brash, and loutish beyond belief. But she also brings real depth to her character too. At times, her considered delivery allows us to see, even if only briefly, into Martha’s soul. And Hill is absolutely fantastic as George. He fully embodies the character, and his chemistry with Staunton is such that you really believe in them as a couple. The final scene, featuring them both, is captivatingly haunting, demonstrating their immense ability to hold an audience with very little words or action.
The lighting in these final moments makes it a bewitching sight. It is also very introspective. It stays with you on leaving the theatre. It makes its mark. MacDonald’s production brings Albee’s world to life in a way that makes it truly unforgettable. This is a mesmerising piece of theatre that everyone should go and see.
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