Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter theatre

10/10

This is the third West End production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? since I started going to the theatre, and the only one I’ve been to see. I was excited the moment I first heard it was coming. In the end, I went to see it more times than I’ve seen any other production, and was captivated every time.

The set alone, is cause for excitement, a sunken square of carpet that opens to the audience like a boxing ring waiting for its fighters, but nonetheless feels like a real house. The play, of course, is set up like a fight and uses repeated boxing metaphor and language. At various points, Martha is physically restrained, like a boxer who won’t admit it is the end of the bout. It’s the sort of space I’d love to live in, and I adored the genteel disorder and attention to detail of it.

At first glance, Imelda Staunton is an unusual choice for Martha. The role is usually played by an actress on the large side – and for good reason. Her zaftig frame is referenced several times in the text. So there is a little bit of mental jiggery pokery involved in putting someone so definitively petite in the role. George and Nick’s dialogue about their wives’ relative weight doesn’t make sense when Martha is a slim 5ft and Honey has a good 6 inches in height on her. Set aside that one inconsistency, however, and Staunton is, as ever, astonishingly good. Despite rarely playing glamorous roles – she has been known to tell interviewers that she likes “looking rough” on screen – she seems nonetheless to relish sexing it up in Martha’s “Sunday chapel dress” and playing off two leading men (Staunton is, it occurs to me, one of the few female actors I can think of who consistently plays opposite actors younger than her – Mat Horne, Conleth Hill, Michael Ball, Hugh Laurie all spring to mind. More casting like this please!). She has the most physically demanding role in the show, and her sheer energy is breathtaking, bringing the same force of nature performance she brought to Gypsy (of which more later): she writhes, she whines, jumps, dances, shrieks, seethes, yells, cries – and yes, she does bray. She makes the audience laugh as loudly as she makes them weep and manages to be as pitiful as she is grotesque. It rapidly becomes clear why the casting makes perfect sense. Staunton is a master of playing larger than life characters who tower over the stage, but when Martha crumples inwards, she wrings her rage and despair into a tiny ball of sobs that makes it possible to feel protective of Martha despite her monstrous ways. From the back of the balcony, it’s impressive. From the front row of the stalls, it’s so intense that it’s almost painful to watch. If I have one small criticism, it’s that occasionally – just occasionally – there’s a touch of Madame Rose about Staunton’s Martha – but just a touch.

Although Martha often feels like the star performance, it was George I was longing to see. Not only because his lines are some of my favourites, but because Conleth Hill is an actor who was always going to do something interesting with the role. While Martha’s rageful antics may seem dominate the action, it’s Hill’s George who is really running the show. Hill offers an excellent portrayal of repressed emotion: a great balance to Staunton’s Martha letting it all hang out. He seethes. He claws back tears. He sneaks off when it gets too much to deal with his feelings alone – a natural response when faced with someone whose bad behaviour is on display all the time.

For much of the play, he appears to be observing, ironically. Enjoying the show, even. But his vulnerability comes out, for me, in the moments when he can’t bear to be there.

It’s easy to think of George as the long-suffering half of the duo – Martha even characterises him as such. But ultimately, George knows – both of them know in fact – that he is the most together of the two, which puts him in control. Equally, Martha’s claims that George was a rising star who never made it never entirely convince me. Those ambitions, it seems, were all Martha’s. The George who would be king never really existed.

I read an interview with Conleth Hill where he expressed a fairly romantic interpretation of the play: that there’s hope at the end and George and Martha sort things out. For me, this outlook informs his performance to an extent: Hill’s George loves Martha and hasn’t stopped loving her, even though he also loathes her at times. He plays along with her games but that’s a choice; she needs him, which isn’t, so she has more to lose when he takes over as games master. Martha’s claim that George needs her arm to whip him rings false. He knows she’s broken and needs to push him away; she needs him there to push. But the final emphasis on “WE couldn’t” at the end when explaining their childlessness seals their complicity – lines Hill and Staunton deliver perfectly, while looking away from each other.

As someone who grew up watching the Mike Nichols film version of this play, it’s impossible to avoid making a comparison between the two – especially since the casting is a little off text in both cases. Reversing the age difference between George and Martha in the film not only makes it necessary to excise all the lines about Martha’s age, but also reduces them to an exceptionally vicious take on the archetypal older man/beautiful young wife pairing: this George has been seduced by beauty and lived to regret it. This Martha has married an older man – one she naively thought was more successful and sophisticated than he was. In contrast, Staunton and Hill’s take on the roles reminds me of so many mismatched couples I grew up around. Often the combination of a loud, mouthy, frequently vulgar wife and a quieter, bookish husband. No-one could ever quite work out what temporary madness had got them together, but it had. And only they knew what kept them together.

Additionally, when played by an actress in her 30s – not least one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen – Martha’s seduction of the not-that-much-younger Nick seems commonplace rather than grotesque. Watching the film, it seems hard to believe that this Martha’s conquests would need Dutch courage to attempt the deed, or approach her thinking only of their careers. I mean no insult to Ms Staunton by this – she makes an alluring Martha – but the seduction element takes on a different emotional and psychological hue when Martha is played by a mere mortal, and one who, at 61, is genuinely old enough to be Nick’s mother.

But it’s not all about George and Martha in this play, even if they do absorb most of its energy. Imogen Poots is outstanding as Honey – a difficult role since much of its success lies in the small, physical moments, rather than the lines, which are sparse and often merely punchlines to what others say. She makes it her own, aces the interpretative dance and gets some spectacular and well-deserved laughs. Luke Treadaway, as Nick, didn’t really do it for me. He never seems quite comfortable in his character, and the character is in turn uncomfortable in his surroundings, so things feel stilted. His chemistry with Staunton is better than with Hill, so that towards the end of the second act he improves, but I couldn’t help leaving with the impression that it was a role he didn’t enjoy playing.

It’s easy to see Nick and Honey as younger version of George and Martha – she with her emergent drinking problem and he with his career plan. I’m not against that theory, but I’d reverse the roles: Nick is more like Martha, with her ambitious plan for the future, and George is her mouse – a bit naïve at the start, perhaps dazzled by someone more sophisticated than he is. The young couple could easily represent America’s future, with George and Martha its squabbling, dysfunctional (and let’s not forget barren) past. In which case, we are now living in the world Nick and Honey have made for their grandchildren: if we want to know what happens to them after they leave George and Martha’s, I think we know the answer.

Overall, this stage production brings to life more of the devastating tragedy of the text than the film version was able. I always used to watch the film and suppose George and Martha spent their Sunday having kinky sex and then started the whole mess all over again the following Saturday. Burton and Taylor gave off that vibe. Staunton and Hill have a different chemistry. They’re going to sleep it off, crawl out of bed at dusk and either never speak to each other again or else finally discuss that rest home. You get the impression that while the two leads have enjoyed their fun at points, something really has changed, leaving the audience to wonder what happens when they finally wake up – not to mention the next time they run into their victims/guests on campus.

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Is it time women stopped talking about women?

Recently, I was working with a respected colleague on a content strategy for a female client. Knowing that our client is deeply involved in high-profile forums for women in business and is a regular speaker at high-profile events, I suggested that she might want to build on this.

My male colleague winced, visibly. “The women thing…I don’t know.” His implication was that the subject of women’s inclusion in the industry was old hat. Despite this, in the course of our discussion he went on to make several references to how male-dominated it was – even mentioning at one point that I was the only woman he’d ever encountered in my sort of role.

During the rest of our conversation, I asked myself: was he right? Having given the matter some reflection, I don’t think so. Here are just a few reasons why.

Talking about women still makes men uncomfortable

When I was born, feminism was already at least a decade past its most violent years. I’m in my mid-30s now and men still find conversations about women – and female experience – hard to stomach. A week or so ago I had a male colleague tell me that it was TMI to mention periods in the context of an article about a cycle tracking device. Really? This sort of squeamishness is unacceptable. If we want to live in a world where everyone – female, male, gay, straight, cis, trans – can feel comfortable sharing their experience of being a human, we need to shut this discomfort down. And doing so means sharing female narratives and experiences in every context – including the spheres of business and work.

Women still need visibility

The disproportionate male domination of business is not changing quickly enough. While women cut a streak as entrepreneurs, Only 7% of FTSE 100 companies are led by women – and given the fact that more than 50% of the UK’s population is female, we need to keep talking about why that is the case. We can’t keep hiding behind the excuse that motherhood gets in the way either – 20% of UK women never even have children. We should focus more on the fact that C-level execs are chosen by their peers – and many men don’t understand women enough to see them as peers.

Women are not an ‘issue’ to be resolved

By implying narratives around women are ‘done’, my colleague was suggesting women have now been successfully absorbed into the male business world and are no longer an ‘issue’ to be resolved. This attitude is problematic because it reinforces the working world as a male space that women have the right to enter but not to change. It also suggests that women need to be pacified – and in the process silenced. Talking about our experience as women is an important way to ensure not only that ‘male’ ceases to be the default, but also that our views and voices shape the world in which we work.

Equality shouldn’t mean being absorbed by men

If we set absorption as the goal for equality, we completely ignore the fact that women’s identity and experience is different – especially in the workplace. As David Parry-Jones has illustrated in his 50 Days of Male Privilege Statements posts, much of what is normal for women is completely unheard of by men. It’s not just a case of being underpaid and overlooked: women frequently have to restructure their careers – either through choice or responsibility – in ways that men don’t. Women rarely have a straight upwards career path and are more likely to make sideways moves. And these experiences have put women at the forefront of developing new ways of working. If we close down narratives around female experience in the workplace, we also close down narratives about, work-life balance, career design and the changing structure of work.

Closing down narratives around women – considering them out of fashion, inconvenient, or already dealt with – reduces the needs and perspectives of a large proportion of the world’s workforce to an afterthought. It also helpfully ignores many ongoing issues that affect people of all genders. As we start to increase our awareness of identities beyond the binary, conversations that challenge the male default are becoming even more vital. And we should all be having them.

Why don’t train companies bother using technology?

It’s 1.30 on Friday afternoon. It’s my lunch hour, but I daren’t consider a sandwich. Instead, I am sat on the floor of a GWR train with my laptop, feeling increasingly queasy as I read and write in discomfort.

This is the second time in a month that I have found myself travelling in this manner. The first was in early March, when, despite clearly selecting a specific train from King’s X to Edinburgh, I ended up with nowhere to sit. What had seemed to me like an opportunity to choose whether I had a preference over the TYPE of seat (aisle/window) was actually a question regarding whether or not I wanted a seat to begin with. Well, of course I did, it takes over 5hrs to get from London to Edinburgh and no-one wants to stand for that long.

I ended up first thinking I’d dropped my reservation – despite not having an accompanying reservation my ticket informed me it was not valid without one – before learning from Virgin I’d never had one in the first place. How was this possible, when I’d chosen and booked for a specific service? I was tired, stressed due to work pressures, and physically not in the best of health – and ended up bursting into tears, crammed into corridor space like cattle with a load of students from ghastly places like Peterborough. What should have been the start of a nice relaxing holiday was stressful and upsetting. Virgin’s team were making no effort to find people seats and their online support suggested I walk up and down the crowded train with my luggage looking for one. To add insult to injury, they had a limited menu and few functioning toilets. The best they had to offer me was a patronising take on “sorry”. I arrived in Edinburgh sullen, hungry, and so exhausted I had to change my plans for the following day.

Getting it better the Great Western way

Today, I actually had a reservation – booked more than a month in advance. However, due to distressing personal circumstances I won’t go into here, I wasn’t able to travel on that train. I booked another ticket this morning- and despite trying several different services, there was no way I could get a reservation unless I travelled First Class for over £200. I tried to get reservations on three different services before starting to worry that perhaps they didn’t make reservations for on-the-day travel – the language was unclear I had no option but to take my chances.

This time, I knew I had no reservation and went looking for a seat. I found one that looked as though it hadn’t been claimed – but that was only because the woman who’d booked it waited – bizarrely – almost half an hour to claim it. By which point all but one of the unreserved or unclaimed seats on the train had been taken.

Unlike Virgin, GWR actually put their staff to work finding seats for passengers, asking passengers to point out spare seats next to them to those without seats and making regular announcements about where seats could be found.

For the first three hours of my journey, I moved between seats that were between reservations (sometimes for only 20 minutes) and the corridor. Sometimes the corridor had up to 15 people crammed into it (GWR assure me there is no legal limit to the number of people that can be carried on a train).

Once I had secured a seat, I wanted some food. To get to the cafe several carriages away, I had to hop over buggies with children in them and step over toddlers playing in the aisles. When I tried to place my order I discovered they had signature-only card machines and as my signature has long been obscured due to the fact that card signature strips seem to accommodate few types of ink, I couldn’t get any food. As I braced myself for the return obstacle course, I changed upon one of their managers: like their Twitter staff, she was charming, calming, kind and accommodating. She listened to me, agreed the journey was terrible and gave me vouchers with which to purchase food. In the 30 seconds it took for me to thank her and hand my vouchers over to the cafe they had closed and I had to wait for a whole new stock to be unpacked. The cafe manager was amiable and chatty and did his best to cheer me up. But it was hard to enjoy my food or regain my seat feeling anything less than extreme anxiety. GWR are compensating for a poor service with great staff – but the stress on passengers remains.

Everyone else is doing it – why can’t you?

There are bigger questions here than simply whether staff help people find seats. For example whether train companies should be overbooking long-distance trains in this way – I can see the sense for short journeys, but very few people will actually want to go without a seat for several hours. Or why aren’t ‘you might have to stand for two hours’ seats cheaper , as they are in theatres? Why aren’t they just marked as ‘standing day tickets’ from the outset instead of making people go through the ‘would you like to book a seat’ charade?

There’s also the question of why – in 2017 – they aren’t making wider use of technology:

  • Why aren’t they showing live booking data – such as which services have seats available to reserve – on their websites like theatres and cinemas have done for a couple of decades?
  • Why – when gig promoters and airlines can manage it – have most train companies failed to discover e-tickets? Only Virgin seem to do this. Travellers shouldn’t have to waste the time they spent getting to the station early so they csn find a seat queuing to collect tickets.
  • Why aren’t they designing their apps so people can see which carriages have the most available seating?
  • Why aren’t they exploring technologies – well tested in other industries – that would allow them to provide an at-a-glance view of where reservations haven’t been claimed, seats are free/about to become free?
  • Why on earth don’t GWR have chip and pin machines when most other places have moved on to contactless?

Any other service provider would either be implementing these measures or would have them in place already. A UK train ticket seems to be just about the only think you can spend over £100 on with no hope of care, customer service, or interest in generating repeat business.