"This modern classic still feels lethal”Evening Standard
“A flawless production”The Daily Telegraph
“A first-rate revival of an astonishing play”Guardian
“Utterly heartbreaking”The Stage
Edward Albee’s masterpiece sees Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill in electric form as the warring couple
In the early hours of the morning on the campus of an American college, Martha, much to her husband George’s displeasure, has invited the new professor Nick (Luke Treadaway) and his wife Honey (Imogen Poots) to their home for some after-party drinks. As the alcohol flows and dawn approaches, the young couple are drawn into the toxic games of George (Conleth Hill) and Martha (Imelda Staunton) until the evening reaches its climax in a moment of devastating truth-telling.
This new production of multi Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Edward Albee’s landmark play is directed by James Macdonald at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Whether or not you’re afraid of the radicalism and unconventional brilliance of Virginia Woolf, you’re likely to be scared stiff by Imelda Staunton’s Martha in this fierce revival of Edward Albee’s lacerating Sixties play. As the monstrous yet vulnerable daughter of a New England college president, trapped in a sour marriage, she gives a performance of wounding intensity. Initially she’s gleeful, and the laughs come thick and fast as she spars with her husband George. But when clueless guests arrive, she salivates at the prospect of sinking her fangs into fresh meat. As the alcohol flows and the arguments become more caustic, Martha transforms into a loud and outrageous truth-teller. In the frenzy of debate Staunton is sharper than an assassin’s dagger, yet she’s every bit as memorable in the play’s quieter moments — when she’s needy and feline — and also in its bleaker ones. Alongside her Conleth Hill is superb. On the face of it, paunchy professor George is a loser whose defining feature is a slumped posture of booze-sodden disappointment. But the dynamic between him and Martha is unpredictable. Inside George lurk both violence and a malign cleverness. Yet just as their relationship seems thoroughly ugly, a flicker of affection illuminates the unlikely history of their love. Their late-night visitors are Nick and Honey, new on campus and hoping to make some useful connections — though in fact doomed to be degraded by their hosts. Luke Treadaway, an actor who often appears fascinatingly otherworldly, isn’t an obvious choice to play a ruthlessly ambitious dullard. But he’s plausible as the cocky and empty-headed Nick, while Imogen Poots, making her West End debut, skilfully suggests the jittery bewilderment of Honey, who treads an uncertain path between politeness and absurd naivety. James Macdonald’s precise and finely balanced production ensures that this modern classic still feels lethal. As Hill and Staunton fathom the depths of their poisonous duet, the humour is merciless and the pain exquisite.
Inveterate guzzlers beware: patrons are being actively discouraged from eating during this production of Edward Albee’s name-making marital-crisis drama of 1962, in order not to put off the actors or distract the audience. Watching James Macdonald's superlative revival (marred only by the cattle-class lack of roaming space at the Harold Pinter theatre), however, you realise that this controversial move is actually a medical necessity. There’s every danger of mid-show scoffers either choking to death as they’re seized by convulsive laughter, or disgorging the contents of their viscerally churned-up stomachs. Based on the simple premise of a late-night drinks party that comes to resemble a modern matrimonial equivalent to the flayed-alive horrors of Dante’s Inferno, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the most wickedly entertaining, most viciously nasty, most incrementally harrowing play in the American canon. And I’ve never yet seen an account of it that ticks all those boxes with such pen-breaking vigour. After a sluggish start to the New Year, it’s as if the West End has been dragged out of hibernation by some blood-stained, howling predator. Central to the shut-up and listen, sit-up and watch, power of the piece is Imelda Staunton’s Martha, the New England college head’s daughter who has made it almost her life’s work to bawl out her frustrations with her lacklustre historian-academic husband George like an angry baby. Staunton’s specialism is the female monster who somehow hooks you in, unawares, to the pain and damage that lies beneath the snarling mask and winds up enlisting your sympathy. Coming after Sweeney Todd’s Mrs Lovett and Gypsy’s “Mama” Rose, both equally sensational, the actress applies a musical-theatre stamina to this no-let-up role. Whether it’s a machine-gun ha-ha-ha or sustained yowl of despair, she doesn’t miss a vocal beat. At the start, she’s the larger-than-life party animal licking her chops at the prospect of fresh prey (in the form of campus teaching-staff newcomer Nick and his dull-dutiful, doe-eyed wife Honey). Restless, volatile, at times put-on girlish, Staunton, gimlet-eyed and thin-lipped, flings out the put-downs like loose-change: “I swear if you existed, I’d divorce you”. Thereafter, she passes through different phases of alcohol-assisted disinhibition (lust-lunging after the trim biologist) before winding up, three exhilarating-exhausting hours later, in a place of desolation: all malign passion spent and all vestige of the couple’s sustaining life-lie expired, the pun on “who’s afraid of the big-bad-wolf?” now chilled with thoughts of Virginia Woolf’s childless, suicidal end; their journey an epitaph, all told, on sterile post-war American affluence. Bouquets, again then, for Staunton (why not yet a dame?), which isn’t to say she eclipses Conleth Hill as George. There’s nothing rote about this hen-pecked hubby’s bite-backs: like many a big fish in a small academic pond, he has evolved the teeth of a piranha. And while this grey-haired figure has the paunch and stoop of a man gone-to-seed, Hill keeps you guessing as to how defeated he is, what’s real, what’s artificial, what’s covertly conspiratorial. That said, the force with which, early on, he smashes a liquor-bottle gives some inkling of his impotent fury and his capacity (later made more explicit still) for physical violence. If there was an award for Best Sozzled Acting, Imogen Poots, funny-touching as the clueless, condescended-to Honey, would win it. She makes her mark even when slumped on the brown leather sofa that sits dead-centre in Tom Pye’s spacious yet oppressive living-room (nicely rounded off with idly stashed books and tacky tube door-chimes). As Nick, Luke Treadaway musters just the right gleam of all-American promise and nicely registers its dimming as his elders’ bitter initiation ceremony wears on. A flawless production? Albee sworn to it.
This is one of those rare occasions when play, performance and production perfectly coalesce. Imelda Staunton, having portrayed one of the sacred monsters of the American musical in Gypsy, now brilliantly embodies Edward Albee’s campus Medusa in the shape of Martha. Conleth Hill matches her every inch of the way as her seemingly ineffectual husband, George. Watching the two of them pummel each other senseless in a three-hour verbal slugfest may be exhausting but is ultimately uplifting and cathartic. Every decade brings us a production that renews this astonishing play. There were memorable versions directed by Howard Davies in 1996 and by Anthony Page in 2006. James Macdonald’s revival is their equal in that it reminds us that Albee’s play is both a Strindbergian marital drama and a comment on the state of the Union itself. It has long been noted that the names of George and Martha echo the Washingtons and that they live in a college called New Carthage, which implies built-in destruction. Albee shows us a couple tearing apart both each other and their party guests, Nick and Honey. There is a key moment in this production when the historian, George, points out to the geneticist, Nick, that Americans are heavy drinkers and says: “I suspect we’ll be drinking a great deal more too … if we survive.” Albee wrote those lines in 1962 when the US was haunted by the cold war balance of terror. They seem no less resonant in Trump’s America. But, for all the play’s political overtones, it only works if it is rooted in psychological realism, which is where Macdonald’s production scores heavily. Staunton is not one of your big, blowsy Marthas built on Elizabeth Taylor lines but a pocket fighter who shows from the start that she enjoys humiliating George and also relishes his occasional comebacks. Everything she does, you feel, is calculated to goad George into a reaction. She invokes their supposed son as a deliberate provocation. She points a derisory finger at her husband, scornfully describing him as “It-That-There.” She wraps herself round Nick with the sinuousness of a snake. But Staunton is at her magnificent best in the final act. Stripped of her warpaint and her Mae West drawl, she reveals Martha’s vulnerability and self-loathing as she says George must be punished for making “the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me”. Ultimately, it’s the desolate sadness that makes Staunton’s Martha so memorable. Albee makes it clear that many modern marriages are sustained by destructive role-play. Hill, as George, superbly suggests an old scrapper who is now punch-drunk from too many marital bouts. He slouches ruefully about the living room and, at one point, sulkily hurls himself into a wall-facing chair to curl up with Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Hill gives us a pensive intellectual who delights in scoring points off Nick, crediting him with a belief in a dismal utopia filled with test-tube bred, perfectible human beings. But Hill never lets you forget that George is wounded by Martha’s infidelities and that his viciousness towards Nick and Honey is prompted by a despairing marital love. This is, however, a team show and the young couple are excellently portrayed. Luke Treadaway as Nick combines the golden arrogance of youth with the smug disdain of the scientist for a battered old humanist like George. Imogen Poots, in her West End debut, also strikingly shows the childlike Honey switching between awed delight in the older couple’s outrageousness and a growing awareness that she herself is the victim of Nick’s contempt. You feel this is another marriage that, 10 years on, could descend into gladiatorial combat. But, watching Albee’s play, I was reminded that there was once a Russian work called An Optimistic Tragedy. That title could be applied here. Albee’s play is tragic in that it shows an intelligent couple retreating into verbal violence and grotesque games-playing to camouflage their unhappiness. But it is optimistic in that George and Martha finally shed their illusions and face up to the bitter truth. The greatness of Albee’s play lies in its unspoken wish that the American nation might itself one day have the courage to confront reality.