Never have I emerged from a play feeling physically battered, but that’s how I felt after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter theatre on Saturday (battered in a good way, if that’s possible). Admittedly I was feeling more tender than usual due to having just been on a 5.5 hour wine tasting course where there was no spittoon, but in a way that helped me to relate to the play’s characters, who knock back an astounding number of drinks over the course of the action.
The play takes place in the early hours of the morning in the home of George and Martha, a history professor and his wife, the daughter of the president of the college. They’ve just returned from a faculty party and have invited a younger couple, Nick and Honey, a professor in the biology department and his ‘mousey’ wife, to continue the party at theirs. Nick and Honey are sucked into George and Martha’s toxic relationship; as more drinks are consumed the couples grow increasingly disordered, the arguments escalate and both marriages unravel. The entire play takes place in the living room, a drab, pistachio-coloured incubator for bitterness, resentment and disappointment. Yes, it’s a heavy play, but the dialogue is so full of wit and energy that it’s never a drag.
I loved this production. What astounded me most is how the characters’ conversations flow so naturally – exactly the way you’d imagine an increasingly drunken conversation at a party would unfold – in a way that reveals everything you need to know about the characters, their relationships and their pasts, without being clunky. For this writer, it was a masterclass in dialogue. It builds towards the climax – the revelation about George and Martha’s absent son, who always hovers awkwardly on the edge of conversation – with a sense of inevitability. Remember those times you’ve stayed later than you should have done at a party, long after the fun has departed, watching a friend (or yourself) getting drunker, knowing humiliation is coming but doing nothing to stop it? That.
Imelda Staunton plays Martha, and it would be easy to say she steals the show, swerving between vivaciousness and charm, Medusa-like seductiveness, banshee-screeching and child-like vulnerability – but she was perfectly matched by Conleth Hill as George. He is a cantankerous old history professor on steroids: from the get-go he eviscerates Nick, who threatens him as a representation of science and progress as opposed to George’s fusty old world of history. Martha, on the other hand, he treats with ironic scorn, knowing exactly how to get under her skin. Just when you feel he’s being too cruel, she retaliates with an attack so brutal he’s again reduced to a tweedy, ineffectual object of pity. Their toxicity infects Nick and Honey, who begin as an immaculately dressed golden couple glowing with youth and end looking as if they’ve gone through several rounds in a boxing ring. The actors playing Nick and Honey play it fairly safe, but perhaps that’s what makes them the perfect foil for George and Martha.
Nick and Honey aren’t merely victims: their marriage has its own fatal flaws which are brought out of the woodwork by their night with Martha and George, and in a twisted way I felt as if the older couple were doing them a favour by sparing them years of simmering resentment. As the younger couple stagger home and dawn light streams in through the window, you get the sense that Martha and George have thrashed their way towards a stark truth, where delusions have been shattered and a bitter cycle has finally been broken. It’s not exactly a hopeful ending, but it is resolution.
There’s not much to dislike about this production. It’s an astonishingly well-written play starring four strong actors, staged in a simple way which allows these elements to come to the forefront: what could have gone wrong? The play is running until the end of May and you should see it, though I wouldn’t recommend trying thirteen glasses of wine beforehand if you don’t want to come out feeling emotionally in shreds!