Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 27 May 2017
There’s a dark and barely speakable void at the core of George and Martha’s relationship. Middle-aged and married for twenty odd years, he’s an Assistant Professor at the University of New Carthage who’s not going to rise any further, while she is the daughter of the University’s President, both of them brutally aware that the chance to achieve the dreams and aspirations of their youth has long since passed them by. (British TV in the 1970s had a sitcom fueled by marital frustrations entitled George and Mildred – older readers may well recognise a resonance…)
The shared vacuum of George and Martha’s lives is filled by bitter sniping, infidelity and alcohol, the pain of their desperate mutual neediness broken one night by a drunken and impromptu invitation to Nick and Honey, a much young married couple, newly employed on the college’s staff.
Over one long and boozy night, the action never leaves George and Martha’s lounge which slowly evolves into the cruellest of emotional bear-pits. Much like a cat will tease a mouse before pouncing, so too here do the old toy with the young. The cruelty of George and Martha is magnificent – they’ve worked this routine before as Get The Guest, becomes Hump The Hostess, culminating in a devastating endgame of Bringing Up Baby. Spite, betrayal and humiliation are constant themes with even the perfectly preppy Nick revealed to be a swine – necessary, as George tells him, “to show you where the truffles are”.
Conleth Hill and Imelda StauntonThe three-hour, three act show is gruelling, but driven by James Macdonald’s gifted foursome, the pain that Albee subjects us to is always bearable, sometimes witty and constantly poignant. Conleth Hill plays George – always an ultimately a step ahead of Martha even when she is at her most devastating and also with a gimlet eye, speaking witheringly of the youngsters with a comment that could so easily apply to today’s young people craving their safe spaces – “the social malignancy of youth who cannot take a joke”. Clearly little has changed since Albee’s 1965.
The engine room of the play however is Imelda Staunton’s Martha. Profoundly sexual yet emotionally devastated, from Momma Rose to Martha (and maybe throw in Mrs Lovett too) Staunton’s recent West End outings have defined domestic dysfunctionality. Throwing everything at George that she can lay her hands on – including cuckoldry – she takes our breath away with her energy and breaks our hearts as, almost Clinton-esque, she herself is broken at the finale.
Imogen Poots is the “slender-hipped” Honey, slight in both physique and nature – Albee doesn’t pull any punches in seeing both women come off worst by the end of the play. Opposite her, Luke Treadaway captures his own youthful insincerity as the ultimately shallow yet muscular Nick.
James Macdonald delivers a perfectly weighted take on a 20th century classic. The 1965 allegories are as true today as they ever were – and in the hands of this stellar cast, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf ? makes for unmissable theatre.