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.