“Like having dinner at the Macbeths,” is how actor Conleth Hill describes the new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, which has just opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Hill is George, a lacklustre historian-academic at a New England college whose misfortune is to be married to Martha (played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton), the bitter daughter of the college Principal. The play, which is supported by Bruno Wang Productions and has received a volley of five-star reviews, sees the two working out their marital pain in front of Nick (played by Luke Treadaway) and Honey (Imogen Poots), a young couple new on campus. Fuelled by alcohol and vitriol, Edward and Martha indulge in a three-hour verbal slugfest; one which may feel exhausting but is ultimately uplifting and cathartic.
In a recent interview with The Stage, Hill said: “It cannot be denied that they are both real drinkers and Martha is an alcoholic. Yet there’s no doubt in my mind that they truly love each other, although it is amazing what he puts up with from her.”
He also revealed that Staunton and he had been hoping to collaborate on a project for some time.
“We worked together on Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang and we got on like the proverbial house on fire.
“So, as you do, we talked about looking for a play for the two of us. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about it when out of the blue, the offer came to play George opposite Imelda as Martha. I agreed immediately. As I say, I didn’t know the play at all so I sat down to read it and I was instantly hooked. I’d say it was more a dark comedy than a tragedy, since there is hope at the end.
“It is a great piece of writing and it’s a great ensemble piece as well. It’s also about how young people, like Nick and Honey in the play, never listen to the warnings of their elders. Albee reminds me of Chekhov or Simon Gray. His are people you wouldn’t give a second glance if you were to meet them in the street but who have a quality that actors want to delve into.”
As Martha never ceases to remind her husband, his once dazzling academic career has fallen into the doldrums. “There’s a great deal in the play about hierarchy in the academic world,” said Hill, “but I think that this relationship could apply to any human organisation – to any society. With this play, it’s all on the page and it’s such brilliant writing that your job has mostly been done for you.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until May 27 2017.