Alcohol does terrible things to people – and particularly to couples, as anyone who has witnessed (or participated in) a drunken couple’s bitter arguments can testify. As well as being a masterpiece of the dramatist’s art, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is also a very clear reminder that excessive alcohol is a Very Bad Thing.
The story focuses on George (Mark Meadows), a middle-aged academic, and his wife Martha (Pooky Quesnel), who invite newly arrived lecturer Nick (Joseph Tweedale) and his wife Honey (Francesca Henry) back for drinks after a party.
In more or less real time the guests (and the audience) witness George and Martha indulging in three hours of booze-fuelled psychological game-playing and cruelty. Jean Cocteau described his one-woman telephone conversation play La Voix Humaine as “a woman bleeding to death on stage”; Who’s Afraid… is a couple stabbing one another to death on stage, mercilessly plunging the emotional knife in over and over and over again.
In a torrent of embittered words, Albee’s characters erase the boundaries between truth and fiction, deploying language either as a battering ram (Martha) or a passive-aggressive stiletto (George). Nick and Honey find themselves getting sucked deeper into the destructive cocktail of (self-)hatred and hurt of which George and Martha are such expert proponents.
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Albee’s play is so beautifully constructed that it would be very hard to break it. The words flow as smoothly as a fine bourbon, and the dynamics are perfectly attuned to make every climax a punch in the gut. The need to maintain the author’s original rhythm explains why his estate is so averse to anyone trying to cut the script, even if that means retaining the play’s rather unfashionable three-act structure.
Although the script carries the audience effortlessly through the evening, the piece does make some intense demands on the actors. It is difficult to successfully play ‘drunk’, yet all four actors manage to achieve the perfect blend of slight physical instability, verbal fluency and alcoholic erraticism demanded by both the script and verisimilitude.
Quesnel’s Martha may feel a little bombastic at times, but it’s possible that this is an accurate reflection of a certain type of drunk middle-aged American woman. Meanwhile, Meadows’ George is a tour de force: angry, flippant, engaging and anguished, revelling in his inebriated eloquence.
Brutal and discomfiting, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not an easy play to watch. But it is justifiably considered one of the great plays of the 20th century, and this production offers an excellent opportunity to fully enjoy – if that’s the right word – a true dramatic classic.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues at Tobacco Factory Theatres until Saturday, March 21. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/edward-albees-whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf