So, who is afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or, to rephrase the question as it is intended – as Edward Albee confessed was his angle in a Paris Review interview – who’s afraid of living without false illusion? Who is afraid of the cold, hard truth?
And if the answer is Albee’s Martha, as it clearly is, then it’s hard to see how there could ever be a greater performance of this character than that given by Imelda Staunton, who fashions a character whose terror and denial is so all-consuming that she exists in a perpetual state of anger, self-loathing and increasingly deluded fantasy.
We all know that Imelda Staunton is the finest stage actor working today but so devastating is her portrayal of Martha that, well, it’s almost hard to put into words. It is so complex, so nuanced. She has completely captured this complicated woman whose capacity for self-delusion and lies is only matched by her desire to torture her long-suffering husband, George (Conleth Hill).
And yet by the end, when George has finally punctured that most fragile and precious of illusions, you are left weeping for a woman who, for all her cruelty and all her violence, has been reduced to a hollow shell.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is Edward Albee’s masterpiece – a play whose reputation is such that most know the story even if they haven’t seen either a production or the film.
Martha and George are a husband and wife in a deeply toxic relationship. Their cruel games and torment of each other, exacerbated by their alcohol dependencies, should never see the light of day. But when Martha inadvertently invites back a new couple in town after a drinks evening at her Father’s (the President of the University at which George teaches), the pair end up dragging this unsuspecting and naïve couple down with them – and ultimately cause a rupture in their own marriage that may never truly heal.
You see, Martha hates George. She hates him. He is a failed man. Bloated and average. He was meant to be a star. A true man. One that would run his faculty and then take over from her father as President. One that she would be proud to be married to. Instead, she is left resenting him, hating his pathetic failure to be the man she wanted him to be. She spits at him, runs him down. Her only words to him are barbs. She’s always provoking him. She wants a fight. She wants her blood to boil so ferociously just so she can rip him to shreds.
But for Staunton’s Martha, this torment is as much a mask for her own self-loathing. It masks her resentment at herself for ever loving this man. For her part in the failure of their marriage. Her own anger that her life has not turned out the way she had hoped. Maybe it even masks the fact that she still loves him, that she needs him. That she can’t face up to the fact that she is dependent on him. Not that Martha has the self-awareness to realise any of this. Instead, it is George who feels the full force of her fury – and having guests makes no difference to her behaviour.
Staunton’s barbs are as quick and as cutting as a whip. You can see Hill reel under each lashing, yet what fascinates you is that George is never broken. He’s never truly beaten by Martha. This is a marriage where George has clearly staggered to his feet many times before. Pushed under but never completely drowned. There is an inner resilience to Hill’s George that I found utterly compelling.
What intrigues you about their relationship is that as much as the violence, there is relish. George and Martha feed off each other. They whip up fantasies and stories to keep each other entertained. They mix up lies and truth with ease. They even laugh and share jokes, cruel as they may be. And a favourite game is to push and prod at the veneer of idyllic happiness around them, such as that which emanates from the new couple in their midst. They know such perfection is a lie so they start to pick at the seams, to unravel the threads.
It’s important to acknowledge that there are excellent performances across the cast. In addition to Hill, whose George is the perfect foil for Staunton’s Martha – what with his creating for himself a space, a world, where he can retreat and rebuild – Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway are perfect as the young couple who become victims, prey, in the webs George and Martha continue to spin.
Their characters have their own arcs to follow and they hold their ground as a couple who are as intrigued as they are appalled by what manifests in front of them. At times arrogant and conceited, at other times outwitted and fooled. The constantly shifting power play between the four characters is perfectly realised.
But for all the superlatives in this production – the direction from James Macdonald is perfectly paced and even the set design (courtesy of Tom Pye) is superb – I came away with a revived respect for Albee’s writing. This is playwriting of the highest order. I feared this play may have become tired over the years, or perhaps it would be me that was jaded with seeing a play I knew so well yet again. But I had simply forgotten.
The concept is supreme – a couple unable to address the disappointments in their lives instead obsess with games and fantasies, and whose loathing and frustration is now manifested in a brutal co-dependency to which they are both addicted.
And the rollercoaster is sublimely constructed. We flip from humour to bile on the toss of a coin. The ferocity of the exchanges, the damage and hurt the characters carry with them. There’s flirtation with the absurd, there’s stunning, quickfire wordplay. And those moments when words are spoken that can never be taken back, when lines are crossed… You feel it in your gut. You wince, you look away.
And for all the versions of this production that have been performed, you realise Albee left so much room for interpretation in his work. There is so much ambiguity. Does George love Martha? Does he, really? Is his act one of vengeance, or one of pity and devotion? That is what I still am wrestling with, all this time later.
As George gently reconfirms at the end, again and again, this had to happen. It had to be this way. Yet there is no tendresse to the reconciliation. Or, indeed, is this a reconciliation? It is a reconciliation to the truth, but these are words and actions without comfort. Instead it is Martha’s who is shattered, leaving you to wonder, what next? Indeed, what next? Where the hell do these two go from here?
An utterly devastating production.
Harold Pinter Theatre, London, to May 27, 2017
All production images by Johan Persson.