I saw Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by James Macdonald at the Harold Pinter Theatre, during the last week of previews, and have a ticket to see it again in April; I’d like to say that I’m sophisticated enough to pick such dates so that I can compare the performances etc. but actually, these are just dates that I’m free and tickets were still available. I’m a bit rubbish at keeping up with what’s on and when it’s coming for sale (with opera this is easy – the whole season is released on same day, and all you need to do is to be on the virtual queue early enough), and so I very nearly missed this. Glad I didn’t though, for it was quite a thing, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing it again.

Edward Albee’s play is about an unhappy marriage. The sort that most of us know about – I had a slightly uncomfortable realisation halfway through the first act that I was watching a version of my late aunt and her husband, my aunt being the namesake of the main character and even the set matching my memory of their house, decorated in the high style of the 1960s and never redone.

The play takes place one night, over few hours. George and Martha – a failed academic and his wife whose father is the president of the college where he works – have been married for a long time, and during this one night all the resentment and bitterness of their marriage is poured out. They come home from a faculty party, in the small hours of the night, and are joined by Nick and Honey, a young biologist new to the college and his wife, and – fueled by alcohol and the presence of strangers – have a mighty humdinger of a marital row. They have become so good at their private games that it’s impossible to say how much of what happens rises from deep but highly dysfunctional affection, and how much is genuine resentment. They tear into each other with the sort of precision that only people who know each other inside out can – as Nick says, as they keep hitting each other, they never miss. As the play progresses and Martha becomes more and more unhinged, her motivation becomes clearer – she’s standing in the middle of the room, literally shouting to get her husband’s attention. George is there, verbally (and ultimately physically as well) attacking her, but somehow he doesn’t see her anymore, doesn’t see her pain or fears, doesn’t understand that she’s begging for him to tell her to stop doing what she’s going.

At first the young, brilliant Nick and the sweet-natured, prim Honey (I’m not sure if this is her real name – has Albee given her a silly name, or no name at all, defining her through a demeaning nickname she cannot outgrow?), appear to be contrast to the weary, disillusioned George and Martha, full of rage, but as the play progresses this becomes blurred. Nick is exposed as self-serving, ambitious gold digger who got together with Honey for her money, while Honey is revealed to be dim, hysterical and perhaps manipulative. They married quickly after she had got pregnant, but the pregnancy turned out to be hysterical – a clue that she, like Martha, is probably unable to have children. Early in the play Martha tells Honey about their absent son, and this is the act of betrayal (their unspoken agreement being that the imaginary son is their own private game) sets George off. He tells Nick a story about a school friend who accidentally (or perhaps not) first shot his mother, and then killed his father when they are out driving by swerving to avoid a porcupine on the road, hitting a tree; this story, repeated three times during the play, is revealed to be George’s invention. The pain of childlessness is real for both Martha (and George) and Honey, but in the early 1960s America it also signals their failure as women; especially Honey, being an uneducated, nonintellectual woman is failing to fulfill the one task set by the society for her.

As the play ends, there is a sense that this night, in all its brutality, has perhaps been a corner for George and Martha – the resentment spent, the grim reality of their relationship exposed, they have cleared the air and can perhaps rebuild their marriage from these smoking ruins. Nick and Honey make their hurried departure, and it’s the two of them that really seem doomed, especially Honey. Where Martha is an incredibly clever woman, more than able to hold her own trapped between her illustrious father and her marriage, Honey’s fate may be much more terrifying – childlessness, loneliness, alcoholism.

It makes for an exhausting three hours or so; I left the theatre feeling absolutely drained emotionally. I saw a Saturday afternoon matinee, and cannot imagine how the actors could do a second show only couple of hours later. Imelda Staunton is someone I didn’t particularly like for the longest time; I rather suspect that it was her turn in Harry Potter that changed it. She was terrifying in that, and terrific in this, being thoroughly believable in the all roles that Martha performs. The rest of the cast is brilliant too – Conleth Hill as grey and quietly vicious George, Luke Treadaway as Nick who starts out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and transforms into the jerk that he really is, and Imogen Poots as cheerfully ditsy Honey, increasingly drunk, increasingly agonised, ultimately helpless. Altogether this is a brilliant, heartbreaking production.

PS. Virginia Woolf seems for me to eternally go together with Sarah Connolly; she sang in Oxford just two days after I saw the play, and gave her second Oriel College masterclass on the day after.  In April, I will again see her on the same day I’m going back to the theatre (I’d love to live in London for just the Wigmore Hall lunchtime recitals). As usually she was a delight, presenting a programme of some nice Schumann and exquisite Copland, among other things.

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